BREIZH AMERIKA PROFILES | Lois Kuter
Lois Kuter has been informing English speaking audiences about Breton culture and language for over 40 years with her subscription based newsletter. Bro Nevez, the longest running Breton newsletter, includes articles about the Breton language and culture, book and music reviews, and short notes to introduce readers to Breton history, art, literature, economy, sports, nature and Brittany's Celtic cousins. Lois is also the only American to have been awarded a Collier de l’Hermine.
We sat down with Lois to discuss her connection to Brittany, about the ICDBL, and her thoughts on the future of Breton language.
What is your link to Brittany?
I have no Breton or Celtic heritage in my family that I know of. My discovery of Brittany was accidental. I’m afraid it is a long story, but I’ll try to keep it short. When I was a teenager I bought an exotic looking musical instrument labeled “Made in Pakistan” which turned out to be the practice chanter for Scottish Highland bagpipes – the basic instrument one uses to learn and practice tunes. I found that there was a bagpipe band in my area – there are many in the U.S. – and I decided to learn. From there I discovered the variety of bagpipes and had the good fortune to meet an uillean piper who took me and a friend on as students. I started on the wooden flute then gradually got up the courage to try the uillean pipes. My piping is very rusty these days and I was never exceptional on either the Highland pipes, uillean pipes or flute, but came to love the music and enjoyed getting together with friends for very informal gatherings where conversation far outweighed music-making. My uillean pipes teacher was interested in all the Celtic languages and cultures and it was at his house that I discovered the music of sonneurs de couple and the bagad, as well as Breton song.
I studied anthropology and ethnomusicology as an undergraduate student at Oberlin College and then as a graduate student at Indiana University (Bloomington). When it came time to choose a dissertation topic for my PhD, looking at the relationship of Breton music to Breton identity was a natural choice. And to understand what Breton identity is, it is necessary to look also at language. So I set off for a preliminary look at Brittany the summer of 1975 and then spent an entire year there from September 1978 to September 1979 – certainly a very interesting period in the evolution of Breton identity and music. There have been a few shorter trips since, and I have kept in contact with many friends I made while in Brittany.
Music has always been what I love most about Brittany and from 1984 to 1997 I produced 139 hour-long and half-hour-long radio programs for a local radio station here in Philadelphia. While this was a small university station, there were hundreds of listeners who discovered all kinds of Breton music from LPs and CDs of that period in my collection.
Tell us about the ICDBL and the newsletter that have been going on for over 40 years? How does someone sign up for it?
The International Committee for the Defense of the Breton language was founded in Brussels in 1975. During the years after that over 20 “branches” were established throughout Europe – in most cases a single representative with a particular interest in the Breton language. The idea was to show that it was not just the people of Brittany who were interested in the future of the Breton language. The Brussels base offered the opportunity for the ICDBL to do lobbying on behalf of the Breton language in the European Community.
During my stay in Brittany in 1978-79 I was asked to consider setting up a branch of the ICDBL in the U.S. which would add to the presence of a branch already in Canada. The U.S. Branch of the ICDBL was founded in 1981 and we published the first issue of our newsletter that year. Unlike the other branches of the ICDBL, the U.S. branch was a membership organization. Although it has dropped in recent years, annual membership has hovered around 100 individuals from over 40 states and a few provinces of Canada. The focus of activity has always been the newsletter, Bro Nevez, which provides readers with news about the Breton language and efforts to promote it in Brittany as well as information about Breton music, history, economy, cuisine, the natural environment, arts, sports, etc. Besides the newsletter the U.S. ICDBL has written letters of protest to French government officials (usually without response), and we have set up information stands at Celtic Festivals. Because of our dispersal throughout the U.S. we have not held meetings but have a board of consultants who communicate regularly if there are issues to be addressed – elections of new officers, financial matters, changes of membership dues (which remain very low at just $20 a year), or other action that should be addressed as a group.
Our members have diverse backgrounds – many with a strong interest in Celtic languages and music, some with a Breton ancestry, others who might have spent vacation time in Brittany, and yet others who simply feel it is important to support minority languages. Most speak neither French nor Breton, so our newsletter has been important in providing access to English language news that has been scarce in either print or more virtual media.
All back issues of Bro Nevez are accessible on our website www.icdbl.org to anyone interested, but we welcome new memberships as a way to cover costs of mailing complimentary print copies of the newsletter to individuals and institutions in Brittany who request it in that format. Anyone interested should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you see as the future of Breton language? What steps should be undertaken or done?
One cannot be overly optimistic about the future of the Breton language, but it seems that Bretons remain diligent in finding as many ways as possible to give it a place in Breton life. The bilingual schools and the immersion style of Diwan continue to grow, but the French Education system seems to throw up roadblocks whenever possible. For example the French Constitution was used to eliminate measures to advance immersion style teaching in the recent Molac law for regional languages. There has been a growth in radio, audiovisual, and other media presence for Breton but there is need for much more growth there. Thanks to the militant efforts of Bretons to insist on bilingual road and street signage, there have been advances there too. I think the amazing creativity and diversity in Breton music has also been a positive factor. Younger Bretons have embraced the traditional heritage of Breton language song and also create new songs in all styles.
It will be up to Bretons themselves to ensure the future of the language by learning it and using it in everyday life. And new generations will need to keep up the fight to counteract government roadblocks and resistance to provide real support for regional languages. Easier said than done!
is an organization established to create, facilitate, promote, and sponsor wide-ranging innovative and collaborative cultural and economic projects that strengthen and foster relations and cooperation between the United States of America and the region of Brittany, France.