Recognizing the [invisible] bond between humans and landscape

This Saturday (March 29 at 10 am!) Sophia Rabliauskas of Poplar River First Nation will be presenting on the meeting ground between culture and nature. Her topic, "Spiritual connection with the land: sustaining traditional territory" and her role in protecting the boreal forests of Manitoba, are of particular personal interest. The Poplar First Nation is one of five Anishinaabe First Nation communities who joined together with the Manitoba and Ontario governments to nominate their ancestral lands, Pimachiowin Aki, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The deferral of their nomination has become the subject of much dialogue about how to recognize the heritage value that lies in the bond between culture and nature.   

Earlier this month, Willowbank students participated as student contributors to a discussion at the Université de Montréal's 2014 Roundtable "Exploring the Cultural Value of Nature: a World Heritage Context". Sahra Campbell and I were asked to compare Pimachiowin Aki to other Listed World Heritage cultural landscapes and to comment on what can be done to recognize sites whose heritage value lies in their culture-nature bond. 

"Bay of the Brown Beaver" 1985

We started by studying Pimachiowin Aki's nomination and the subsequent evaluations that led to its deferral, along with evaluations of The Vega Archipelago in Norway and Grand Pre in Nova Scotia. These helped us understand the fundamental challenges imbedded within silo'd evaluation mechanisms that impede our full understanding and recognition of sites like Pimachiowin Aki.

In answering the question at hand, we spent some time considering what “sites like Pimachiowin Aki” might be. Are they aboriginal cultural landscapes?  Or can they be any site where the bond between humans and nature is essential yet largely intangible? For sites that sit somewhere in between, we came to realize that  the land itself could be understood as a social actor, forming the entire framework for a culture.

Pimachiowin Aki - Bloodvein River, MB

Pimachiowin Aki - Bloodvein River, MB

We learned that Pimachiowan Aki is an ancient, continuous, and living cultural landscape in which the forest, waters, wildlife, and all other beings are understood as one living entity. The Anishnaabeg ensure the continued manifestation of their values through land-based activities guided by their embodied traditional knowledge and cosmology, which includes an intricate network of geographic references and travel routes. While tangible qualities do exist in the landscape, its tangible signs of cultural significance were not created with permanence in mind. 

Pimachiowin Aki

Pimachiowin Aki

The Vega Archipelago and Grand Pre were chosen as comparison primarily because they were nominated under related criteria to those which Pimachiowin Aki were aiming for. It turned out they were useful comparisons for a variety of reasons.

The Vega Archipelago

The Vega Archipelago

The Vega Archipelago is part of a large cluster of islands just south of the Arctic Circle. It was inscribed to the World Heritage List in 2004, primarily because of the unique way in which generations of residents, specifically women, have developed a unique relationship with the area's wild eider ducks. This relationship led to the practice of eiderdown harvesting, for which Vega is now well-known. Over time a symbiotic relationship has developed between humans and wild eider ducks, wherein ducks will nest in specially built “eider houses” and women collect eggs and down in return. The harvest of eiderdown is still carried out in the traditional method, thus defining Vega as a continuing cultural landscape.

The Vega Archipelago, eider houses

The Vega Archipelago, eider houses

Sahra learned that the people of Vega are primarily seasonal residents and many return to their lives in the city on the off season. Unlike Pimachiowin Aki, where First Nation communities reside full-time, there is less economic imperative for the community at Vega to modernize its traditional techniques. At Pimachiowin Aki, modernization of their traditional practice simply ensures their cultural continuity, but may be viewed as a loss of authenticity and integrity. 

Grand Pre in Nova Scotia was inscribed in 2012 for retaining its pioneering, traditional, and sustainable agricultural techniques, and for its role as the iconic place of remembrance of the Acadian diaspora. 

From its ICOMOS evaluation, I learned that the indissoluble bonds between culture and nature are embodied in the Acadian people’s lasting ability to control and develop fertile marshlands subject to salt water flooding. The continuing use of their traditional polder system is a community-managed example of sustainable agricultural land use in a living landscape.

This comparison between Grand Pre and Pimachiowin Aki pointed out a few things for me:

  1. World Heritage criterion can be tricky for communities to use and interpret. No kidding?
  2. Like Sahra noticed, it is unclear whether modern upgrades to traditional ways of life, such as the replacement of wood with modern materials in the aboiteaux of Grand Pre, or the replacement of canoes with powerboats at Pimachiowin Aki, are evaluated as evidence of a healthy, continuing cultural landscape or as a loss of integrity.
  3. There seems to be a certain amount of comfort in celebrating landscapes where the human relationship with nature is one of control, or where there is a lasting mark of culture. This material fetish is apparent in the celebration of man-made features imprinted on Grand Pre, and in the fascination with Pimachiowin Aki’s rock art images and pictographs.  

Having just scratched the surface of the enormous body of relevant  work both within and outside the World Heritage Convention, it was no easy feat to understand how to approach sites like Pimachiowin Aki, whose heritage value is largely intangible. We think there is a real need to clearly connect the dots between all the discussions surrounding the bond of nature and culture. Several of the week's talks highlighted promising resources, including the IUCN's Protected Area Categories that recognize cultural value. Looking outward at the progress that other cultures have made and inward at the ways Intangible Heritage is recognized can also give us some additional insight.

Norval Fighting Demon. Norval Morrisseau

Norval Fighting Demon. Norval Morrisseau

We considered that it may be worthwhile to reassess the current definition of Outstanding Universal Value. Pimachiowin Aki was deferred because it did not demonstrate how its intangible associations were of outstanding importance when compared with other similar sites. There may well be other sites with similar biodiversity, land-use patterns and traditions as found in Pimachiowin Aki, but to see these commonalities as diminishing the "exceptionality" of each site is narrow-minded. We suggested that shared experiences paint a richer, more multilayered  portrait of human integration with the land.

What do we gain from nominating the “best” examples if it means overlooking the subtle differences, common traditions and overlapping patterns that connect us all?

Judgements about value attributed to cultural heritage may differ from culture to culture, and so perhaps developing a more inclusive and holistic approach to determining the value of a place would help bridge the divide.  For instance, nominees could be consulted on a case-by-case basis regarding what other ways they might express their Outstanding Universal Value. Cultural barriers to understanding may go beyond language, as written submissions with photographic supporting material in a neatly-sharable package are not universal ways of communicating.

Another  approach to defining Outstanding Universal Value can be considered in terms of a Land Ethic. Remembering that humans are nature helps to understand that nature and culture are deeply ingrained within us, and that worldviews do exist without the construct of a separate nature.

With over 50% of humans living in urban landscapes, our dominant landscape is one of materiality. 

It is a small portion of humanity that embodies a land ethic, and an even smaller portion that can live harmoniously with nature for millenia without dominating it with visible and permanent cultural elements.

Places where this land ethic sits are indeed places of universal value.

Seeking answers to present at the roundtable left us with further questions that we asked the other roundtable attendees to ponder:

  • Are the categories of nature and culture artificial and arbitrary?
  • How can a bond be honoured when there is little evidence of human or cultural manipulation of the landscape?
  • How can subtleties be accepted as outstanding values?
  • Can World Heritage honour the fact that a culture of living lightly on the land, leaving little trace, may indeed be more “bonded” to a landscape than one that has had a lasting, visible impact? 

We'd love to know your thoughts, and to continue the discussion at the Willowbank Lectures in coming weeks.