Peripatetics



ETHNONYMS: Gypsies, Irish Travelers, Rom, Romnichels, Ludars, Scottish Travelers

Peripatetic peoples consist of small, ethnically recruited, kinship-based bands who make their living by providing goods and services to the larger population. These groups are often called "Gypsies." Instead of relying directly on natural resources, peripatetics exploit a social resource base that, although ubiquitous and relatively predictable overall, is characterized by intermittent demand and patchy geographical distribution. Peripatetics usually utilize a wide range of procurement and maintenance strategies. Their relations with the surrounding populations are marked by opportunistic and shifting economic responses, ethnic separation, and ideological opposition that sanctions the economic exploitation of the host population. Although these peripatetic groups are ubiquitous in North America, being present in every state of the Union and in Canada, they are few in number and Scattered in distribution; because they maintain a low profile, they go largely unnoticed by the majority of the population. Each constitutes a separate ethnic entity maintaining its identity and distance from the larger society as well as from other peripatetic groups. Each also has its own history, cultural traditions, and a language or dialect that protect against assimilation. Kinship-based and largely egalitarian, their Social organization recognizes no leaders beyond an occasional "big man." Most viable social units consist of endogamous family bands whose composition and distribution fluctuates according to concentration of exploitable resources and the degree of amity among members.

A variety of groups in North America can be said to have been traditionally peripatetic, and among them are many families who still continue a peripatetic life-style. These include non-Gypsy Irish and Scottish Travelers and four Gypsy groups: the Rom (of which there are several subgroups), Romnichels, or English Gypsies, Ludar, or Rumanian Gypsies, and a group of German Gypsies calling itself the Black Dutch. The category of peripatetic groups overlaps that of groups who identify themselves as "Gypsies." Some Peripatetic groups, such as the Irish and Scottish Travelers, do not call themselves Gypsies and are apparently of indigenous Irish or Scottish ancestry. One American Gypsy group which is sedentary, and perhaps has been for generations, is the Hungarian-Slovak Gypsies, some of whom are called Romungri and who have traditionally provided professional Musical entertainment to the Central European immigrant Communities of the northern industrial cities. In addition, there are families not belonging to any of the above-mentioned groups, but who currently follow a peripatetic life-style; they are disdainfully called "Refs" by the members of the other groups.

North America received its first viable group of Peripatetics with the arrival of the Romnichels, whose immigration began in 1850. They soon found a lucrative trade in the rapidly increasing demand for horses, first in agriculture and then in urbanizing areas before the advent of tractors and automobiles. After the rapid decline of horse trade following the First World War, most Romnichels relied on previously Secondary enterprises, such as basket making, manufacture and sale of rustic furniture, and fortune-telling. Their reliance on horse and mule trading continued longer in the South where poverty and terrain slowed the adoption of mechanized agriculture. Today, most are engaged in a variety of home-repair trades among which roofing, spray painting, and seal coating are the main pursuits.

Although their history has not yet been fully explored, the Irish and Scottish Travelers seem to have arrived shortly after the Romnichels and followed similar pursuits. They are the offshoots of groups commonly called tinkers in the old country after their main means of livelihood; after arriving in North America, however, most pursued a wide range of peripatetic strategies before concentrating on the horse and mule trade after the Civil War. After the decline of that trade, many families relied on the sale of various items, among which linoleum seems to have been prominent. Today, spray painting is a major occupation.

The next large influx of peripatetics into the New World began in the 1880s with the arrival of the Rom and Ludar Gypsy groups interspersed among the waves of other Immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Rom at first relied heavily on itinerant copper-smithing work, although horse trading and fortune-telling also remained situationally significant pursuits. After the replacement of copper vats in small businesses and industry by stainless steel and Monel metal, the Rom came to rely more and more on their women's fortune-telling as a main strategy. This emphasis continues today, supplemented by the men's car and trailer sales, fender repairs, black-topping, and roofing work.

Upon their arrival, most of the Ludar were engaged in animal exhibitions and other work related to traveling entertainment. In fact, passenger manifests show bears and monkeys as a major part of their baggage. Although continuing to travel widely throughout North America, the Ludar have also formed concentrated settlements comprising related families, such as shantytowns in the 1930s and, more recently, trailer parks. Today, many Ludar are also in the black-topping and roofing trades. Some remain in the entertainment industry and continue to travel with carnivals. Still others manufacture rustic furniture, which is then sold door-to-door.

Regardless of current specializations or strategies favored by the peripatetic groups, each retains a built-in flexibility to adapt as its environment changes. Most individuals are masters of several trades; even where some families have seemingly "settled down," readiness for mobility remains a viable alternative. In contrast to the ever-changing economic Strategies, little change is noted in the ethnocentric ideology, social separation from the majority population, endogamy, and other factors that contribute to the maintenance of a strong ethnic identity.

See also Irish Travelers , Rom

MATT SALO

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