Intangible cultural heritage in Sápmi

Sámi traditions have become once again a topic of interest in Swedish and Sámi media, this time in the context of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, ratified by Sweden in 2011. The intricate process of selection of Swedish intangible cultural heritage is led by the Swedish institute for folklore and language and involves several groups and institutions, such as the National Swedish Handicraft Council, the Swedish National Heritage Board, the National Archives of Sweden, the Swedish Arts Council, the Nordiska Museet, the Sámi parliament, Centre for Swedish Folk Music and Jazz Research and the Multicultural center.

The convention identifies several domains where Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) is manifested:

  • oral traditions and expressions, including language
  • performing arts
  • social practices, rituals and festive events
  • knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
  • traditional craftsmanship

“Safeguarding” means measures aimed at ensuring the viability of the intangible cultural heritage, including the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of such heritage (Article 2). These measures are indisputably of great significance for minority cultures.

Perceptions on Sámi expressive culture have varied in accordance with different political and ideological contexts; similarly, the definition of ICH is inscribed in a political context. The yoik, for instance, is under consideration for inclusion on the ICH list, whereas it was stigmatized in the past…

Examples of intangible cultural heritage include for instance folk songs from Mongolia and Vietnam, weaving skills in the United Arab Emirates and storytelling from China – just to mention a few.

The convention lists cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding as well as representative intangible heritage and safeguarding programs.

The map on the UNESCO site indicates clearly which countries and governments have been active in the process. The non-representation of countries is not an indication of the non-existence of ICH, but of non-ratification. Items listed as ICH in Sweden, Norway and Iceland should soon be included on the map.

The acknowledgement of the value of certain traditions, practices and forms of knowledge has many implications. Beyond the political aspects, the listing by UNESCO entails for instance issues of ownership.

Through the convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage, the UNESCO establishes a database. As US scholar Prof. Ursula Heise shows in her research about “Red Lists, Databases, and the Poetics of Species Extinction”, databases can be read as narratives that express our concern, for instance regarding disappearing species or, in this specific case, cultural heritage. Red lists are central for law and legislation, and the ICH convention is one more example of it. The political consequences of databases, their bias and the issue of data-deficiency are evident – but still rarely brought up.

It is essential to take into account the political consequences for the ICH list, not only for what will be included, but even more importantly for what is to be excluded and not labeled as worth safeguarding.

For more information about Prof. Ursula Heise’s research, see her talk “Narrative, database and biodiversity loss” at HUMlab on September 20th, 2011


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