DARK IS OUR RESILIENCE. Prejudice and opportunities of preserving living cultural heritage in the north.

It takes two days and an international conference to rise many questions, thoughts and no prayers when talking about the perks and perils of intangible and living cultural heritage in the north. Are we stuck in counter globalisation, while over protecting what's ours in the age of sharing? Are we denying digital era only out of fear it will show our lack of skills rather than be a terrific tool for resilience and continuity of intangible traditions? Are we criticizing younger generations for their nonchalance only because we are afraid they will make traditions more alive than we ever did? And, finally, is it time to stop stigmatize tourists in the time of everybody becoming one?
capital r, capital riga, latvia


If anyone asked me (and if there was no option to avoid answering) what element unites and moves, but also crushes and bothers cultures and communities up the north, while making them different from others, I'd say - nothing else but darkness.

Not that many territories in the world cope with the concept of darkness the way we do, and I came to this conclusion when participating at the "Living heritage in the Nordic countries" conference in Helsinki recently (and what CAPITAL R covered in a conversation already). Although the event celebrated diversity and discussed intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as something that makes communities unique, it got me thinking the opposite - if all of us are so different, then why are these particular territories represented at the conference, and not others?

Although each one of us is different, independent, and unique, there's got to be a uniting factor bringing in territories exclusively from Northern and Arctic Europe, or Northern Dimension, right? Whether it's geographical, cultural, social, or philosophical element, denying a meta value equal to most of us seemed reasonable, but also a bit hypocritical.

At first, when contemplating on the uniting factor of the north in the conversation mentioned before, I would agree of such factor not being hidden into cultures but rather in bowels of what causes them to form or turn in the first place. One can only admit there isn't a single cultural trait uniting everyone around here at the end of the day after all - be it potatoes, ice hockey, sauna, pagan songs, rock music or the celebration of Summer solstice. Thee is a reason Edward Said, a Palestinian American born professor, who is also credited as the founder of post-colonial studies, has once strongly stated that each culture is tied to each other thus none is entirely clean, but rather hybrid and heterogeneous.
capital riga, latvia
Trough centuries and even millenniums the people of north have faced tides of times and temptations, emphasized by constant wars, terrifying plagues, genocide, colonisation, deportations, emigration, exile, globalisation and Internet memes. Many elements of each communal identity have also been lost due to our slightly more introvert nature, while many customs are now adopting or disappearing due to the perils brought by globalization or climate change - from the globalisation of music and food to fishing limitations, damnation of mass agriculture, the rise of global veganism, etc.
No doubt, one can only admire the tenacity of the northerners in keeping some tangible and intangible traditions alive for a thousand years; here all my compliments go to the organizers and participants of the ICH conference for this reason alone.
I also believe the black nights might have been a reason for many pagan and indigenous traditions to live on still today. Despite Midsummer, that many communities celebrate in order to maintain the physical continuity of the people (e.i. fertility), the pitch black, long nights, sludge, lost connections during snowfall, piercing wind, suicides and overall depression united people around the hearth, listening to each other's legends and folk songs, practising traditional crafts or hiding from cultural persecutions for centuries.

Therefore, I believe it has lead to us having some extremely old pagan and indigenous traditions, heritage, observance days or national holidays that would have been dead in other parts of the world. After all, many regions in the north have had their National holidays at darkest time of the year around here for the last century. Beginning with Lithuania on 16 February, Latvia on 18 November, Estonia on 24 February (including the barricade days in January to February, 1991, as part of reforming the independence), and Finland on 6 December, ending with the first Sámi congress on 6 February that is now the Sámi National Day. There's got to be something done right about learning the perks of the night and use it for our solidarity and strength.

Fighting for snow and ice, the most precious counterparts of darkness, might be one of the hardest and most crucial battles in the history of the Nordic and Arctic identity. Whereas, the darkness will cap us even when the last snow man melts.


During the conference I came to another positive conclusion, though, on what makes us special in the light of culture heritage, and this funtament, important in protecting, preserving and promoting all cultural phenomena today, are museums. In fact, the north might be as good in museums as Americans are in objects of sizes. If there is anything the biggest in the States made into tourism objects, we have museums for anything you imagine - happiness, legends, spies, ABBA, forests, penises, you name it (although we mist a chance to London in order to open the first Vagina museum).
capital riga, latvia
No doubt, museums are essential and, more than ever today, prove - there must not be any difference between tangible and intangible culture. Two very good formulations of why museums are so important, came from a workshop during the conference. Reetta Karhunkorva from Finnish Forest Museum Lusto said that: “nothing but museums can offer deep understanding into phenomena,” while Kirstine Eiby Moller from Greenland’s National Museum and Archive, when reflecting on their challenges with heritage gathering, admitted: “museum also serves as the secretary of the people”.

Although many participants still forget about contemporization of museums doing a large part in introducing every single heritage phenomena in the north to youngsters, while doing it in an interdisciplinary manner. Many museums, from my experience in the tourism industry, still suffer from the stiffness of the past and the "correct", while others are one of the most exciting things to follow today, as they become more interactive, digital, visual, practical, closer to the visitor, better designed and better looking.

A museum is not that dry, cramped space with smelly and dusty artifacts where one must keep silent any more. Museums have become home for every living culture and every inconvenient topic; sadly many policy makers don’t see it this way, as well as the board members of such institutions; it is also unfair to blame their representatives.
Nothing changes the fact that an existing museum of the past is also an existing museum of the future, and one must let in kids, the direct contributor to the future, in to decide the ways they want to approach stories and ICH the best. We, the adults, can only serve as well trained resonators.


The image of tourists has also changed, and we should stop demonizing tourism and devalvate it to Instagramers or foreigners, as I felt a bit during the conference. I could easily recognize the misconception of what a tourist is. The times of Americans, Germans and Japanese throwing money around for hula girls in Hawaii are over; same might be the days of Chinese buses and Instagrammers. If we just focus enough on valuable travellers, who bring money in to appreciate, participate, cherish, enjoy, experience, such responsible tourism is important in supporting every tradition as long as you tell authentic stories that define the tradition.
capital riga, latvia
I was recently in the Viking ship museum in Roskilde, Denmark, and most of the visitors that day were local children. According to the default definition by World Tourism Organisation - they were nothing but tourists, so should we criticize them? Should we only see "locals" and "the others"? But when does an alien become local and when does a local become alien? Call visitors the way you want, but, for one day or those several hours, every kid gained knowledge about the tradition of shipbuilding by touching them, smelled the bark of various timber, or saw a demonstration of Viking jewellery; meanwhile each practitioner of ICH will have one more day to get paid for their knowledge.

I come from a poor family, and those few times I had on a school trip to any Latvian museum, I soothed my hunger for new experiences more than ever, still - I was a local tourist. A person in a different environment than my dwelling one.

Copenhagen city were one of the first ones to call tourists "temporary locals" to avoid such interpretation during their "The end of tourism as we know it" strategy in 2017. Of course, you don’t need to unpack yourself naked in front of anyone for pure amusement, but you give every visitor a bit of your heritage, whether working at the bar or museum, so everyone can bring just a bit of it along, thus keeping it alive that way - as ICH.
On the conference, there was a lady criticizing short term bloggers, who come to see seal hunting, while it means nothing for really safeguarding the heritage. I find it a wrong way of thinking, because -  if it is only one day of experiencing seal hunting, it is still one day more than none.
Even a tourist’s Youtube video can change their friend circle for the better and improve recognition, cause awareness and interest (although my personal choice would be against any awareness of hunting at all). An extra visitor might boost the tradition keeper’s pride, they see that their tradition matters, that their practise can be found out there. Maybe that one visitor might even fall in love with the tradition and stay to settle down and develop a new family of tradition keepers (like it happened with a German guy I know, who came to Latvia as a tourist, fell in love with a local and the Latvian, and now they share a child).


Sustainable culture is also a resilient culture. Looking at the participants, visiting the “Living Heritage in the Nordic countries” conference, I see two large dangers. One - what resilience and what adaptation can we talk about, if there are only few people younger than 34. I don't want to sound like an ageist, but there is a difference how generations perceive newer technologies and sometimes don't understand each other's needs. The second danger, such events and many traditions are so inviting and gathering the same crowd, it is only logical why many traditions are jeopardized - they never go public enough, and, in the light of safeguarding and protecting, are assumed to be distant, inaccessible, unavailable, vague, weird.
capital riga, latvia
During the conference, there was an important topic dragged up about safeguarding. Its idea sounded very noble - to observe the tradition and be sure it grows the right way in the wild world and does not die. But it seemed that "safeguarding" as preserving was pretty much misinterpreted as arrogant and outdated hibernating, starching, incubating, canning.

Aura Seikkula, from Arts Promotion Centre Finland, said: "NGOs must understand they are very much responsible for living heritage". I also understand that, because of globalisation and, some might say, Americanisation, it is extremely hard to keep one’s unique identity and heritage alive. But we can only make our cultural phenomena a "living heritage" as long as they are inherited to younger generations for appreciation, appropriation or even hybridisation. In many cases that might be the only way to protect what makes us different; the only difference is changing the way or medium we talk.
There was a question from the audience "Is digitalisation dangerous to living heritage?", and my answer to it was causing a storm: - "The only biggest danger to any living heritage is it being dead, not digitalized". If kids are on mobile - give them content on social media. If kids are on social media - use it as a tool to promote your story. Don't fight it, channel it, it's just another media form to use in your advantage.
Take kendama as an example. A traditional Japanese toy, now ruling the world among the younger generation to stay relevant for several decades to come. A hype that might have drived Japanese traditionalists crazy, because there are now more tricks possible than there ever were in the whole history of kendama. And they are not the traditional tricks! But who cares, as long as the world remembers the kendama making, playing, and appreciation.

Another good example of breaking the tradition was the Egyptian bard Ramy Essam, who performed at the conference, reflecting on one of its topics related to displacement and exile. He was damned at home by his rough singing style not acceptable by the Arab purists and aesthetes. Now his songs are songs of rebels and protesters, famous tunes that restore humanity of Egyptian culture more than ever. There you go - sometimes the heritage can sound, look and be used differently than we imagine it should, yet it resonates more than ever to the people of today, still keeping its genuine at its core.
Another good example was the folk song renaissance in Latvian schools, when teachers gave the kids an opportunity to translate the verses into emojis. Sounds sacrilegious to many, but, hell yes, what a renaissance of folk songs it was!
If we really want to talk about creating new practices of sustainability, we should better ask the younger generations. After all, they are more creative than we presume, more moved and more able; and sometimes we need to put theory aside. After all, Sumé, the pivot point of Greenland’s fight for their rights and liberation of traditions, was a band not formed by pensioners, but by young activists in the 70’s. Why is it so hard today to give power to the younger generations to decide what to do with their ICH? But it is very hard to answer such questions if there is no one from the younger generation participating at such conferences.

Mārtiņš Eņģelis