Northern Marianas: Flame Tree Arts Festival

The Talabwogh Men Stick Dancers perform at the 2024 Flame Tree Arts Festival. Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Department of Community and Cultural Affairs

The Flame Tree Arts Festival is one of the most significant events held in the Northern Mariana Islands. Led by the Commonwealth Council for Arts and Culture (CCAC), the event is the longest running festival in the western Pacific and occurs on Saipan, the jurisdiction’s largest island and capital.

The festival serves as a focal point for community pride and celebration of CHamoru and Carolinian heritage. Activities typically include music and dance performances; a visual art competition; showcases of traditional skills such as canoeing, carving, jewelry making and weaving; and traditional cooking demonstrations. Vendor booths sell handmade goods, both contemporary and traditional, as well as local food. In this way, the festival serves as an arts market, networking event and source of income for participating artisans from Saipan, Tinian, Rota, Guam and other islands in the Pacific region. The governor, other government officials, civic leaders and culture bearers all play important roles. CCAC works year-round to engage sponsors, organize the festival and recruit artists through word of mouth and one-on-one meetings as well as media announcements.

Shown in red, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is a U.S. jurisdiction located 6,000 miles away from the continental United States. Map source: Wikimedia Commons

The festival brings visitors to the islands but also is an important expression of local Indigenous identity. More than half of residents of the Northern Marianas identify as individuals of CHamoru or Carolinian descent. Given the archipelago’s history of colonization by Spain, Germany, Japan and ultimately the United States, the festival is an important way that Northern Marianas residents honor their Native heritage while acknowledging the blend of Asian, European and American cultures that also have shaped their history.

Youth engagement is an important component of festival programming, which seeks to inspire young people to learn and carry on cultural traditions indigenous to the islands. Many young people are featured as festival performers in traditional dance or music groups. Through partnerships between the arts council and the public school system, an increasing number of youth also are involved in programs that teach traditional weaving and seafaring practices.

The festival further serves as a bridge between generations through dedications that honor artists who have passed away. These dedications recognize the artists’ cultural contributions and preserve their legacy for future generations.

The 43rd Flame Tree Arts Festival took place on April 19-21, 2024, at the Garapan Fishing Base. The festival attracted large crowds, including many families and children, as well as artists and vendors. The event featured 35 artisans, numerous food sellers and performances from more than 40 groups, including representatives of the delegation representing the Northern Marianas at the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture.

The 2024 Flame Tree Arts Festival had a three-part theme: Healing, Bridging and Thriving. “Healing” indicated the ability of Northern Marianans residents to recover from extreme weather events, the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges faced in daily life. “Bridging” reflected the ability of diverse cultures from across the Pacific and around the globe to coexist in harmony in the Northern Mariana Islands. “Thriving” acknowledged the prosperity and creativity that originates from practicing cultural traditions and keeping them vibrant. Among the key financial sponsors for the 2024 festival were Bridge Capital, Bank of Guam, the Marianas Visitors Authority and the Western States Arts Federation. Other sponsors included Brabu Pharmacy, Hagu Real, and partnering agencies from the CNMI government.

For more information on the annual Flame Tree Arts Festival contact CNMI Executive Director Gloriana Teuira.