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Key themes in Indigenous cultural heritage today

18 June 2020

Lines of color inspired from the medicine wheel on a green background

In 2019, we asked a few Indigenous cultural heritage specialists to create a series of papers on their work to highlight a few key themes in Indigenous cultural heritage: museums, repatriation, and intangible cultural heritage.

Culture is a key element found in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It underscores the rights of Indigenous peoples to their languages, cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, including past, present and future manifestations of their cultures.

What is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, UNDRIP is an international instrument that enshrines the rights that “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.” It protects collective rights that may not be addressed in other human rights charters and safeguards the individual rights of Indigenous people.

Among other things, UNDRIP guarantees the rights of Indigenous people to self-determination. It also affirms the right “to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs” and protects their right “to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions.”

UNDRIP was initially adopted by 144 countries, while 11 abstained and four—including Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia—voted against it. The number of countries adopting UNDRIP has since risen to 148. Canada has since announced its full support of the Declaration.

Want to know more about how Indigenous cultural heritage is being practiced and safeguarded across Canada? Have a look at these papers to find out:

Indigenous Living Heritage in Canada

Working in cooperation with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC), Karen Aird and Gretchen Fox wrote this piece, which focuses on the intangible cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples. The paper underscores how critical it is to safeguard Indigenous cultural heritage in its diverse experiences and forms in order to build positive, sustainable, culturally rich futures.

Aird and Fox also call on Canada to reconsider its position with regard to the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Download the paper

Creating a new reality: repatriation, reconciliation and moving forward

In this paper, writer Jodi Simkin highlights the repatriation of cultural and ancestral property to Indigenous peoples as a necessary component of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. She points out that as of 2012, up to two million Indigenous ancestral remains and cultural items were being housed in repositories around the globe. She concludes that we will not succeed in establishing true, lasting or meaningful reconciliation if we continue to hold material culture against the will of its rightful owners and keep the ancestors from returning home.

Download the paper

Suuda Ganunsid, ad gina waadluuxan gan yahguudang Xaayda Gwaay.yaay iiji

Translating as “To Inspire Understanding and Respect for All That Haida Gwaii Is…,” Sean Young’s paper offers insights from Saahlinda Naay, the Haida Gwaii Museum, and reveals how “saving things” can provide a space for holistic, informal learning experiences and transmitting traditional laws and language. Young discusses how the museum was established to provide a holistic, informal space for learning experiences that would cut across traditional museum boundaries.

The museum’s mandate includes addressing contemporary social issues concerning the politics of land, the environment and interdependent ecologies, and tells ancient stories of creation, natural history and environmental change. 

A building near water and mountains in the backdrop
Saahlinda Naay (Haida Gwaii Museum)
Photo: Rolf Bettner

Coincidentally, all of the authors are from what is now known as British Columbia, which is so far the only province that has enacted legislation to implement UNDRIP.

We invite you to take a few minutes to read each of these papers. They offer eye-opening insights into the role of culture in supporting and upholding Indigenous rights—and are a necessary and intriguing education on Indigenous history and cultures in the land now known as Canada.

  • Tag Indigenous cultures
  • Tag Reconciliation
  • Tag Heritage