Below is an overview of intangible cultural heritage for First Nations communities across British Columbia, and the importance of maintaining and cultivating this type of traditional knowledge.
First Peoples’ Cultural Council
Not all heritage is “tangible” heritage (physical places and objects). However, despite the lack of built structure, intangible cultural heritage requires conservation planning too.
Intangible cultural heritage for B.C. First Nations includes traditional knowledge, practices and skills. These things that define the culture—language, oral history, art techniques, rituals, stories and place names—may get overlooked as the focus turns to more tangible things that people can see and touch and hold.
The connection that First Nations have with the land is an example of intangible cultural heritage, and in this time of environmental change, urbanization and industrial development, maintaining that connection is become increasingly difficult—and important. This connection to the land includes harvesting procedures and the best berry spots, fishing holes, seasonal sites and hunting dens. It also includes the cultivation practices—the fish weirs, clam gardens, camas plantations, tree modification and so on.
It’s important to note that not all intangible cultural heritage can be shared with the general public. Some include secret or sacred information that must follow traditional customs that limit who can hold the knowledge. Regardless, it still needs to be safeguarded. Secret knowledge must still be passed from one generation to the next, and doing so means the knowledge is safe and the heritage is protected.
Conservation for intangible heritage is usually referred to as safeguarding. Safeguarding doesn’t mean that the intangible heritage becomes frozen in some pure form—it simply means that the communication of the knowledge, skills and meanings within that heritage is continued.
Successful safeguarding methods ensure that the intangible heritage is relevant to its community, and is transmitted from one generation to the next. It is a continuous and fluid process and always respects the customary practices around access to information.
We recommend starting by creating an inventory, which has been shown to be effective by various UNESCO projects. This inventory can take whatever form is needed and includes as detailed a description as is required to stay true to the traditional values around the knowledge. In this way, secret knowledge remains secret, but the fact that some type of secret knowledge exists is noted in the inventory.
The inventory is simply a starting point to help focus on what practices and skills are valued and need attention. The inventory itself is not a method to safeguard the heritage, but merely a planning tool to aid in the development of safeguarding. The safeguarding itself is in the transfer of knowledge across generations and the continued traditions that keep the intangible heritage alive.
After the inventory is created and specific knowledge identified, actual heritage safeguarding can reinforce where and how the knowledge occurs. For example, people will learn the protocols for harvesting cedar bark, while actually properly harvesting cedar bark; or they will learn about a seasonal ceremony/celebration while preparing for that time of year. In this way, authentic experience is shared, and the specific vocabulary of the knowledge is also utilized.
Role of First Peoples’ Cultural Council
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council currently supports the safeguarding of some core aspects of intangible cultural heritage through the language and arts programs and the FirstVoices project. These programs provide support to communities and individuals.
Reference: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (2010). Implementing the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Retrieved July and August 2010, from Culture Sector, UNESCO website: Intangible Heritage