Folklife is the traditional expressive culture shared within groups of people. The definition used in the establishment of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1976 says, "American folklife is the traditional, expressive, shared culture of various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and regional. Expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms, such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, drama, ritual, architecture, music, play, dance, pageantry, and handicraft. Generally these expressions are learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are maintained or perpetuated without formal instruction or institutional direction. "Folklorist Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett calls folklore "the aesthetics of everyday life." Nevada folklife includes Mexican tamale making, Basque accordion music, Washoe willow basketry, Hawaiian hula, buckaroo saddles, African-American hair braiding, and the language of craps dealers, to name just a few examples.
There are several key elements in understanding what folklore is and how it functions in society. First, it is shared among members of a group; it is not simply an individual creation. The group can be a tribe, an ethnic group, an occupational group such as cowboys or casino workers, a religious denomination, an age group such as schoolchildren, or even a family.
Second, folklore and folklife have continuity over time and become traditional for the people who use them. Often the origin of a traditional practice becomes accepted in the life of a community. Third, these traditions are shared and passed on informally, in face-to-face interactions, and through observation and hands-on practice. A boy growing up on a ranch learns to ride and rope, a Shoshone child goes on yearly pine-nut gathering trips with her family and hears stories about the animals and plants around her, a Filipino child in Las Vegas joins a dance group and learns the tinikling, and a new casino employee quickly picks up the insider language of the tables.
Finally, folklore is creative. It goes beyond the strictly utilitarian and serves as an outlet for the expressive impulses all people possess. It can be an important part of individual and group identity, such as the fancy silver horse gear of the buckaroo, the exuberant folklorico dances of the Mexican community, or a beaded cradleboard lovingly made by a Shoshone grandmother to hold and protect a child.
The range of folklife is tremendous. It includes oral lore (stories, legends, and poetry), music (both instrumental and vocal), dance, crafts, art, architecture, food, ritual, religion, medicine, belief, celebration, games, occupational skills, and cultural landscapes. Folk speech includes regional accents, local terms, specialized language used on the job, and other creative forms of language. Some distinctively Nevada examples include the language of mining (high-grading, mucking), ranching, with its many words that come from Spanish (vaquero/buckaroo, riata), and terms from gambling such as "that's a push" or "toke" that have made their way into everyday conversation. Other forms of oral tradition include proverbs, jokes and riddles, legends, and cowboy poetry.
Performance traditions include vocal and instrumental music and dance. Many of Nevada's new immigrant communities have enriched the state with their dance groups, musical ensembles, and parades and festivals. Material culture includes a wide range of crafts, such as Native American willow basketry and beadwork, quilts, Ukrainian Easter eggs, Peruvian pottery, Thai vegetable carving, cowboy saddle making and rawhide braiding, blacksmithing, and Hawaiian lei making. Material traditions also include vernacular architecture, cemeteries, and cultural landscapes that put a human mark on the world.
Folk beliefs include such things as good and bad luck signs, weather predictions, and dowsing or water witching to find underground water. Gambling lore is especially rich in Nevada–slot players have theories about which machines are lucky or due for a jackpot; players have good-luck items they carry or wear; and everyone has a theory on how to pick winning keno numbers. Another element of folk belief is folk medicine, which usually exists alongside conventional medicine. Home remedies for hiccups or colds are common, and many tribal and ethnic groups have a deep knowledge of traditional plants and herbs that can be used for curing.
Foodways are among the most common expressions of traditional culture, and usually they are the element of a culture that is retained the longest after other things such as language or music are lost. Foods are especially important on holidays and ritual occasions and serve as markers of identity and heritage for many people.
Folklife is the grassroots creative culture of Nevada, whether it has been there for thousands of years such as the lifeways of the Paiute people, a hundred years in the case of Las Vegas gaming traditions, or arrived last year with an immigrant from Africa. All people need to express who they are as a member of a larger community or multiple communities and in their everyday lives. Beauty and art are not for the elite alone but are expressed in the small acts of our days—a lullaby, a celebratory meal, a tune, a family heirloom handed down. Folklife expressions are the art we make ourselves with our hands and our hearts.