We are all indigenous (when it comes to our heritage)

I’ve been doing some more reading recently about indigenous communities and heritage management especially in the United States, Canada and Australia.  My own research is about delivering public benefit through heritage management and interpretation using England and Germany as case studies.  However, the writings about management of indigenous heritage are really useful in this.  They have convinced me that what we need in the traditional Western heritage sector are similar practices.  I think we need to consider everyone to be indigenous [1].

Indigenous Management

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 in the United States, for example, quite a few objects and collections have been returned to the tribes to whom they originally (and still) belonged.  This is the ultimate acknowledgement of heritage as part of a people’s life: some tribes use the objects, some tribes destroy them (because that’s what was supposed to happen to them after use), and some tribes create their own version of a museum to allow tribal members access (but not always everyone – some objects, for example, mustn’t be seen by the ‘uninitiated’).  It took many decades, in some cases even a century, for the (post-colonial) heritage decision-makers to come around to this view, and to accept the right of so-called source communities to manage their own heritage.  Today most of us read these case studies and I think we mostly agree that this is the right thing to do.  However, in our own (Western European) circumstances we unashamedly practice the same colonial and hegemonic dominance over (others’) heritage.  Many are the tourism studies that show the negative effect a top-down development had on relationships with host communities, or indeed the very practice that was put on display.  While stakeholder engagement seems to develop into the Western equivalent to indigenous calls for heritage autonomy, the models still largely confine stakeholders to consultative roles during planning stages.  So perhaps if we began to think of our various stakeholder groups as indigenous communities, we may find it easier to loosen our grip on the heritage reigns, and give stakeholders more control over their heritage [2].

Indigenous Access

In some cases I’ve read about, Native tribes felt that the (post-colonial) museum was actually the best place to protect and care for their heritage objects.  And yet, as heritage objects, these still had an actual use in the tribes’ ceremonies.  Consequently, tribes and museums made agreements whereby the tribal leaders could actually come into the museum to perform rituals around these objects, or even be allowed to take the objects out of the museums and return them after the ceremonies had taken place.  Like Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton I think that heritage is a social process, and as such it needs people to continue participating in it for it to remain alive.  The agreement that tribes and museums have found here strikes me as a splendid solution.  Bella Dicks, for example, mentions the case of miners’ flags in Wales that have been taken out of use by placing them in museums.  The relevant parades happen perhaps once or twice a year: wouldn’t it be a sight supremely placed to inspire protection and appreciation if on those occasions the flags were brought back to life by flying them proudly in the parades?  I think so.

Indigenous interpretation

At the NAI National Conference in Las Vegas last year, I was really intrigued by the absolute conviction with which American colleagues asserted the necessity to have Native guides for Native heritage (and I’ve since heard the same about Aboriginal heritage).  In the literature, it becomes clear that Native engagement in interpretation actually goes much further: if the Native community doesn’t plan the interpretation themselves altogether (through labels, panels, guidebooks and any other media) then they are most certainly consulted and involved every step of the way.  Nothing, it seems, goes public at these sites [3] without those whose heritage it is having approved it.  I daresay that even the most radically minded Western conservationist would probably agree that this is a good thing. And yet, interpretive project upon interpretive project is still dominated by expert assessment and input, with stakeholders at best having been used as a convenient mine for local stories and general consultative bodies (are you happy with us doing a film about your heritage?) with little power.

So let’s think of us all as indigenous

I think by treating all heritage as indigenous, and applying the same practices as post-colonial museums and heritage managers have used with regard to ‘traditional’ indigenous heritage, we in the Western heritage sector may actually be able to address some of the concerns that have been popping up in our heritage literature.  For example, we may no longer need to worry about people being disengaged when it comes to heritage, and the consequent loss of heritage as a living, meaningful practice.  Perhaps we no longer need to lose sleep over how to communicate ‘sense of place’ because by letting stakeholders author their own interpretation (with professional guidance) the sense of place may be right there in it anyway.  Either way, I think it’s worth sitting back and giving this some more thought.  Personally, I’m already committed to this.  I’ll let you know how I get on.



[1] I am quite aware of all the injustices that indigenous communities have suffered with regard to their heritage under colonial powers.  In no way do I mean to imply that majority segments of West European countries have made similar experiences.  I am simply proposing that Western heritage management and interpretation could do with more awareness of and respect for the many different stakeholder groups that have a claim to heritage.

[2] I’m not at all proposing that we hand all heritage management over to stakeholders on a volunteer basis – in fact, I’ve already voiced my concerns about this.  Our stakeholders more often than not are far less organised and socially linked than Native American tribes, for example.  But I think you get the gist of what I’m saying.

[3] That is, at those sites which show what’s considered best practice these days.  I’d not want to claim that this is true for all sites.


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