Academic journal article Ethnologies

Intangible Culture on Inland Seas, from Hudson Bay to Canadian Heritage

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Intangible Culture on Inland Seas, from Hudson Bay to Canadian Heritage

Article excerpt

In October 2003, UNESCO adopted a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Its aim was to ensure "the viability of the intangible cultural heritage (ICH), including the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission ... as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of such heritage" (quoted in M.F. Brown, 2005: 47). The domains covered by the convention included "rituals, beliefs, customs, music, festivals, storytelling, cuisine, popular knowledge, and other living traditions of a people, often expressed through material objects and cultural landscapes" (Turgeon, 2006).

The UNESCO document of 2003 built upon and supplemented an earlier convention (1972), which was drafted to protect the world's natural and cultural heritage in its material forms-for example, monuments, buildings, sculpture, and archaeological sites. The 2003 convention went further, recognizing the "deep-seated interdependence" between the tangible and intangible and the importance of the living traditions linked to material forms of heritage (Phillips, 2006). Similar evolutions in thinking have occurred in recent times in heritage circles in various countries. In Canada, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) has shifted its emphasis over the last two to three decades. Its focus used to be mainly on the mandate furnished by its name-commemorations of and protection for physical sites and monuments. In recent years, it has given increased attention to new categories of persons of historical significance, both women and men, and to members of previously overlooked ethnic and Aboriginal groups, also taking account of cultural landscapes and oral traditions as repositories of historical significance (although it has remained uncomfortable about how to weigh oral history). In the same period, the Department of Canadian Heritage also entered the field of intangible heritage, starting the new century with programs such as its Aboriginal Languages Initiative and Canadian Culture Online. (1)

All these initiatives have lent support to many valuable projects and to critical heritage preservation work. Yet as Laurier Turgeon noted in his prospectus for the seminar series for which this paper was originally prepared, "The politics of intangible cultural heritage has in recent years stirred up lively discussion and debate in Canada, in the United States and in many other countries" (2006). (2) Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia are among the important nations that have not signed on to the convention. Heritage in its material forms can be contentious enough, as issues of prior and existing rights, title, and ownership stir ongoing conflict; witness the unending tensions between the British Museum and Greece over the Elgin Marbles. But international and national efforts to define and legislate the protection of intangible cultural heritage are also lightning rods for contention. Because ICH has to do with living traditions, both the people who carry those traditions and the researchers who work with them must deal with the international organizations, government departments, and other agencies that pursue these initiatives and make policies about them.

For Indigenous people, in Canada as elsewhere, questions also arise about who speaks for whom; many of their constituents may not identify with the major political organizations that represent their interests to governments and ate recognized by government agencies; and other structural and logistical barriers also arise. This paper takes a look at the richness of Aboriginal history around Hudson Bay as held in language and stories--ICH, and then discusses the many challenges that a Hudson Bay Cree storyteller, Louis Bird, and his collaborators faced in pursuing an oral history project funded by a Canadian governmental agency with its own parameters and priorities.

Touching the Intangible

The etymology of the term, "intangible," points to some of the problems arising. …

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