Monday, October 26, 2009

A Quick Introduction to Intangible Cultural Heritage in Alberta

Everywhere I turn these days people are asking me: “What in the world is intangible cultural heritage?” Well, maybe they aren’t, but they should be. This post is meant to help the uninitiated understand what is meant by intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and how to identify it in their community.

So, what exactly is ICH? The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (better known as UNESCO) is a good place to start, as they have been actively involved in the conservation of ICH for a number of years. In 2003 the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted at the UNESCO General Conference in Paris. The Convention defines ICH in the following way:

“The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.” (Article 2.1)

In March of 2009 I attended a workshop on ICH presented by the City of Edmonton and conducted by Dale Jarvis, intangible cultural heritage development officer for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Over the course of the workshop, Dale explained to participants that ICH is manifest in many ways, but can be broken down into the following five categories:

  • Oral Traditions and Expressions
  • Performing Arts
  • Social Practices, Rituals and Festive Events
  • Beliefs
  • Skills and Knowledge

    The examples I am going to use came out of this workshop, and represent types of ICH found in a range of cultural and religious communities throughout Alberta. As you read you will no doubt notice some examples that fit your community as well.

    Oral traditions and expressions encompass a number of different things, most notably languages. UNESCO has developed a list of the world’s endangered languages, four of which are located in Alberta. Other oral traditions and expressions identified by workshop participants included place names, particularly those which were informal or colloquial; immigration stories; camp songs; hymns; joke; playground games; and saying and rhymes such as those contained in the 1913 Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase Book.

    Performing arts identified as ICH in Alberta included the Shumka Dancers, a representation of Edmonton’s large Ukrainian population, as well as the emerging ICH of Aboriginal hip hop. Non-traditional instruments such as the spoons or whistling were also mentioned by several participants.

    Social practices, rituals, and festive events included community fairs, exhibitions, rodeos, farmers markets, tea dances, perogy suppers, sports days, camp revival meetings, corn mazes and the Chautauqua.

    Beliefs were a very interesting subset of ICH, and included such things as the use of horseshoes for luck, sayings about the weather, children not stepping on cracks, and Ukrainian practices of never shaking hands over the threshold of a home, leaving an axe in the doorway of the barn on New Year’s Eve to keep out evil spirits, and not whistling at the dinner table (young ladies who whistle at the table are said to marry bald men).

    Skills and knowledge identified as ICH in Alberta include the construction of thatch roofs (a traditional Ukrainian building technique), local gardening techniques and knowledge of native vegetation, knitting, cooking traditional recipes, midwifery, and home economy skills such as making homemade cleaning products.

    What are some examples of ICH present in your community, and how is it being preserved? It can be as simple as pulling out one of your grandmother’s recipes, or as complicated as mastering Ukrainian dance. Whatever it is, I will echo Dale Jarvis’ closing remarks at the workshop, and urge you to go out and get involved with ICH in your community; to make a conscious effort to preserve the intangible cultural heritage that is relevant to you.

    If you are interested some of the things Canadians are doing to preserve their intangible cultural heritage, feel free to browse the links below.

  • ICH Inventory, NFLD
  • ICH Inventory, Quebec
  • Preserving the Music of Cape Breton Island
  • Pepamuteiati Nitassinat (Innu place names and stories in Labrador and eastern Quebec)


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