Tibetan-Americans gather in Minneapolis to celebrate culture, community

Tibetan-American festival at Boom Island in Minneapolis
Monks sit by the side of the procession line as offerings are made during a celebration on Saturday at Boom Island Park in Minneapolis. The event celebrated the 84th birthday of the Dalai Lama.
John Nguyen | MPR News

When Thupten Dadak Tsawog arrived in Minnesota more than 30 years ago, he was among the first Tibetans to settle in the state. It was a lonely time, he said.

But on Saturday, as he looked out over a gathering of hundreds of Tibetan-Americans in Minneapolis, he reflected on the growth and progress of the past three decades.

It's a community he helped foster and build. And it's a community that makes him feel like Minnesota is finally his home.

"When I see this, I have tears coming down," he said. "People (have worked) very, very hard. And now you can see how many cars (are here today). ... We have probably almost 4,000 Tibetans living in the Twin Cities."

Tibetan-American festival at Boom Island in Minneapolis
Tibetan-Americans line up for a chance to offer a white khata, or ceremonial scarf, during the celebration. They are presented with incense at many ceremonial occasions, including births, weddings, funerals, graduations and the arrival or departure of guests.
John Nguyen | MPR News

The occasion of Saturday's celebration at Boom Island Park, organized by the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, was the Dalai Lama's 84th birthday. The day's festivities started with music, song and a procession honoring the spiritual leader.

And for many people in attendance, a highlight was a visit from Jericho the yak — a sacred animal and the Guinness World Record holder for "longest yak horns — measuring 136.4 inches from tip to tip.

Tsawog and his wife, Nancy, said he purchased the yak from a Minnesota farmer and consecrated him to the Dalai Lama close to two decades ago.

Nancy said she laughed when she heard her husband had purchased Jericho and another yak.

Tibetan-American festival at Boom Island in Minneapolis
Bill Wustenberg places colorful wraps on the horns of Jericho the yak. Wustenberg is a veterinarian and measured Jericho's horns with a Guinness World Records official. Jericho currently holds the record for longest yak horns at 136.4 inches.
John Nguyen | MPR News

"He came home that day and was so excited. He said, 'I've got great news! I bought two yaks! We live in a condo, actually," she said, both of them laughing. "I was excited with him — but I thought, this man will never stop surprising me."

For the Tibetan-American community, Jericho the yak is a beloved symbol of their homeland. The gentle-spirited animal is also a symbol of the peace and harmony that Tibetan Buddhists say they value.

Hugh and Melodee Smith own the farm near Welch, Minn., where Jericho lives together with a herd of about 35 other yaks.

Tibetan-American festival at Boom Island in Minneapolis
Tibetan-Americans in traditional clothing get set to perform a welcoming folk dance during the celebration.
John Nguyen | MPR News

Melodee Smith said she fell in love with the gentle yaks and their calm, quiet nature.

But Smith's favorite part of hosting a sacred yak on her farm? She said members of Minnesota's Tibetan-American community will occasionally show up on her property to picnic by the pasture and be near Jericho.

"They will bring their little grills and they will come and just hang out and enjoy the peace and quietness of the countryside, and the quietness of the yaks, and just be in their presence and soak it all in," she said. "And it really is — that is where the joy comes from, sharing all of that."

In addition to prayers for peace and happiness, a picnic and music, Saturday's celebration also included a moment for singing the American national anthem. It was a day, Thupten Dadak Tsawog said, that reminded him of so many things he's thankful for — including his community in a country and a state that have made him feel welcome.