The poster for the event.

A while back, I was asked to participate in a panel during a conference on diversity and gender. The topic of discussion was «Intangible Heritage as part of future heritage past», and beforehand the participants was asked to reflect on the following question;

Indigenous practices and and intangible heritage are intrinsically connected to natural heritage and biodiversity. Many governments sekk to address environmental decline and the effects of climate change. However, they often do this while whitewashing the histories and origins of environmental conflict and degradation, leaving responsibility for the consequences to the affected communities. This impacts local, everyday cultural practices, as well as national/international policy and decision-making. In this context, what are the cultural consequences of climate change and the promotion of intangible heritage as a consumable product. What do you advise as a possible solution?

This question, and the focus on natural heritage immediately caused a chain reaction in my thought process. At that time, I was in the middle of a book on ethics and how we, as both researchers but also as beings living on Eana, the earth, have responsibilities to all our relations. [1] This is an ethic that demands a duty of care, and we find variations of it in different Indigenous philosophies and languages, across borders of time and space.

In the Lakota and Dakota [2] philosophy for instance, we find the ‘Mitakuye Oyasin’ meaning «all my kin» or «we are all related». [3] In the language of my tjidtjie [mother] we find a similar reflection of this duty of care in the concept of ‘Guelmiehdahke’, as the word takes on the meaning of ‘reciprocity in all our relations’. What these ethics teaches us is that we are already involved in and together with «objects, other animals, living beings, organisms, physical forces, spiritual entities and [other] humans», and that the way to a good life – socially, economically, spiritually and in respect to health – is to care equally for all of these. [4]

Now, some might think this interesting, but perhaps not really relevant to the topic at hand. But on the contrary, how we percieve the worlds we live in and how we develop our ways of being, knowing, and doing – our ontologies, epistemologies, and axiologies – is very much relevant to the topic of heritage, intangible as well as intangible, because it tells of contradicting worldviews, or ontological conflicts, and the consequent violences, and note the plural here, of colonialism.

On the concept of ‘natureculture’

In the book I was reading, the author spoke of ‘natureculture’, and while the term in itself might not be all that significant, what it represents, the reasoning for such a term to be conceived of, is.

The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant otherness.

Coined in the 2003 publication, «The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant otherness» by Donna Haraway, ‘natureculture’ speak to the idea that nature and cultures is so tightly interwoven as to be inseparable. [5] It was mainly introduced as a tool to describe the entangled multispecies histories of the world, and as such to encourage new perspectives and ways of understanding agency. This drive to broaden our understanding of agency fit remarkably well with the wealth of literature that at such a time debated agency, and more to the point, discussed who, or what, was capable of having agency.

However much the age of Enlightenment in the early days of anthropology and archaeology, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries, encouraged a preoccupation with material culture[6], the later advance of sociological theories that favoured structure, symbolism and semiotics as the mechanisms of ordering the material world, caused objects and things to eventually fall out of fashion. With time, it became commonplace to think of meaning, values, and ideas about the material world as dependent on human and subjective agency alone, relegating all other life forms and materialities to a secondary and much inferior position. [7]

Fast forward, into the latter decades of the 20th century however, and post-modernist scholars such as Gadamer, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre offered variations of the same argument given by Haraway, that the human and non-human dichotomy is misleading and that social studies to a much larger degree should consider the social driving forces of the material world. The ‘material turn’ refocused attention on the material world, and more to the point on materiality, which broadly speaking conceptualize the implication of the physical properties of matter in the making of meanings about the social world, or the sociality of materialities; what objects and things do, rather than their possible symbolism and semiotics as interpreted by man. [8] In accordance with this interpretation, the material world emerge from its entanglement with sociality and within social fields of multiple actors without distinction between human and non-human origins. [9]

It is in line with such revaluation of agency, that Haraways ‘natureculture’ must be understood, as a way to challenge the ontological divide between culture and nature, and between human and non-human.

The ontological conflict that has been created by the dualism of nature and culture, is one of the more prevalent examples of the contradicting worldviews that I initially spoke of. If we look to the foundation of traditional sciences such as anthropology or archaeology, we find the notion of a great chain of being; a hierarchical structure of all matter and life in which the subjective will of non-human beings is disregarded, or at best subjugated by humanity. [10] The binary opposition of nature and culture, is just one expression of said chain, sundering the world of human “culture” from the rest of the living world, defined as “nature». [11]

An implied process of «othering»

An important aspect of the nature/culture divide is the act of othering that it encourages. The “other” is very much a known figure in our line of business. Embedded in the making of binary oppositions, the other is created by a master/slave dialectic, where one [the master] through meeting another [the slave] defines their consciousness, but in doing so the Master also sublates the slave, thus impressing their will on the other. [12] As such, the reality of oneself as self-consciouss is achieved only through the recognition and creation of a contrasting «other». This is, broadly put, a process of «othering». [13]

During the Age of Enlightenment, Indigenous people were lauded as “being closer to nature”, and consequently defined as “noble savages”. [14] And so, Indigenous eventually came to occupy the domain of nature, far removed from the “cultured” colonist. In time, culture would come to be defined by reference to its opposing concept, nature. Similarly, the “noble savage”, or the Indigenous would become the other to the colonizer. [15]

Jaques Rousseau (1755), «Discourse on Inequality» . Rousseau, who was a noted contributor to the philosophy of Enlightenment, believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like «ape-men» on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage.

The imbalanced power relations created by the process of othering and the artificial divide of the world as one of nature, or Indigenous, versus one of culture, or colonizer, justified cultures subjugation of nature, and thus the colonization of both lands and people, who by default of Western categorization, were of nature [16]

Today, everytime an Indigenous person and their society is defined as closer to nature, this structural imbalance is reproduced. And everytime, the definition of Indigenous, our worlds and our identities, are centered within an understanding that is born from the colonial strategies that divided nature and culture and alienated homelands from Indigenous people – in other words, the violences of colonialism.

This is an epistemic violence. A violence that not only exclude epistemic and intellectual traditions of Indigenous and other non-Western societies, but also invalidate these knowledges and epistemologies. [17] The long-term harm that Indigenous people suffer as a result of such violence include having foreign values made the norm that we are judged by, defined by and expected to adapt into our ways of being, knowing and doing. [18] The nature-culture divide is one case in point.

In the language of my áhčči, [father] there is no word that is equivalent to the Western concept of nature. Instead, a variety of terms are used depending on context and relation. The term luondu for example, implies nature as in the character of something or someone; olbmo luondu meaning the nature of a human, or the environment being expressed as luonddubiras. On the other hand, when speaking of a geographical area or territories the word meachcci is used. And even then, the meaning of meachcci depends on which practice the area is associated with. [19] . Sámi concept of ´nature` is as such relational, defining relationships rather than any one definitive thing. [20]

In this, our understanding of surroundings mirrors our philosophies. A basic principle in many Indigenous philosophies, including one that is Sámi, is the understanding that our world is one of relations, made up of and «constituted of an infinite web of relationships» that expand beyond the humanocentric; generating ties that apply to everyone and everything, to things and objects, to land, to waters, spirits, and other-than-human beings.. [21] In a Sámi world-in-relations, to borrow a term from the Martinique-born writer and thinker Édouard Glissant [22], subjective will is as such afforded to all; to the land, the rivers, our ancestors long passed, animals and other creatures or beings. [23] In this vast system, humanity is but one small part, and the systems exist beyond our presence in it.

Because we are all part of said system, we all have subjective will. Because we all have subjective will, we all have agency.

Expanding the debate into tangible and intangible heritage

But the subjective will that our philosophies grant to all of our relations – and the ensuing duty of care implied herein – is not something that the epistemologies of the West support. It is not something that law makers, decision makers, or institutions of heritage aspire to validate.

I once spoke with a duojár, a maker of duodji, which is a Sámi epistemology of aesthetics and storytelling about a recent visit to a European museum of cultural heritage. In large cases of glass, they had watched the heritage objects of their people that colonialism had dispossessed – sometimes brutally. Their description is as heart-breaking as it is telling.

It was wonderful to see them [museum artefacts]…I imagine how they came to be…what stories they carry, I can only wonder…what knowledge[s] do they hold, what can they teach but at the same time I feel a sense of alienation. Their voices come to me only in whispers and I cannot hear them clearly”

Our objects, to quote the Sámi artist Outi Pieski, “are our living ancestors” , our elders, in them lies our history, our laws, our knowledges and our practices. [24] But, in museums, these aspects do not exist. In museums, our objects are dead things, refused a subjective will. Our heritage objects once entered into museum collections end up being adapted into the object-based epistemologies of museology. [25] Entered into Western systems of knowledge and value, “object value becomes mutable”, prone to change and thus subverting the values and meanings attributed to the object in their source communities. [26] The intangible is separated from the tangible, and the former is very much othered by the latter – dismissed as insignificant. In this process objects, the tangible objects at least, are remanded into the custody of heritage institutions. The intangible on the other hand, is dismissed and invalidated as Indigenous concerns alone.

These man-made divides are problematic, which is why they continue to be discussed within academic circles. It is why, thinkers such as Haraway propose ways of bypassing the problems with their ideas and concepts.

But how can you center the solution in the same structure that initially created the problem?

When Haraway coined the term natureculture, she was looking for a solution to the problem created by the divide between culture and nature, human and non-human. But natureculture is actually polarizing nature and culture because it attempts to bridge a divide that is human made. Speaking of intangible heritage as opposed to tangible, in my opinion, does the same.

So how do you solve this? I don’t have an exact answer, but I do know that is not to center the solution in the same structure that initially created the problem.

[1] de la Bellacasa, María Puig. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. University of Minnesota Press

[2] Lakota and Dakota are both names of Indigenous communities found on Turte Island, in what is today known as the USA.

[3] Estes, Nick. 2019. Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Verso Books, pp. 12

[4] de la Bellacasa, 2017, pp. 1

[5] Haraway, Donna J. 2003. The companion species manifesto: dogs, people, and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press

[6] Bennett, Tony. 2004. «Pasts beyond memory : evolution museums colonialism.»  London: New York: Routledge, pp. 31.

Henare, Amiria. 2005. Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange: Cambridge University Press, pp. 64-6.

[7] Gosden, Chris, and Yvonne Marshall. 1999. «The cultural biography of objects.»  World Archaeology 31 (2):169-178.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. 2000. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. London: Routledge

Lyons, Claire L. 2002. Objects and Identities: Claiming and Reclaiming the Past. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute.

Nordin, Jonas M., and Carl-Gösta Ojala. 2018. «Collecting, connecting, constructing: Early modern commodification and globalization of Sámi material culture.»  Journal of Material Culture 23 (1):5882

[8] Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the social : an introduction to actor-network-theory, Clarendon lectures in management studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dudley, Sandra H. 2010. Museum materialities : objects, engagements, interpretations. London: Routledge.

[9] Damsholt, Tine, Camilla Mordhorst, and Dorthe Gert Simonsen. 2009. Materialiseringer : nye perspektiver på materialitet og kulturanalyse. Århus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag.

Geismar, Haidy. 2009. «The Photograph and the Malanggan: Rethinking images on Malakula, Vanuatu.»  Australian Journal of Anthropology 20 (1):48-73.

[10] Park, Michael. 2012. Biological Anthropology: Seventh Edition. McGraw-Hill Higher Education

Henare, 2008, pp. 58.

[11] Bennett 2004

[12] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. [1807]1977. Phenomenology of spirit. Edited by J. N. Findlay, Hegel’s Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 179.

[13] E.g. Beauvoir, Simone de. [1949]2000. Det annet kjønn. Edited by Toril Moi and Bente Christensen, Le deuxième sexe. Oslo: Pax.

Said, Edward. [1978]1994. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

[14] Henare, 2008, pp. 70

[15] Mathisen, Stein Roar. 2004. «Representasjoner av kulturell forskjell. Fortelling, makt og autoritet i utstillinger av samisk kultur», i Tidsskrift for kulturforskning, Vol. 3, Nr. 3, s. 5 – 25. pp. 5-6.

[16] Bennett, 2004.

Henare, 2008.

[17] Kuokkanen, Rauna. 2008. «What is Hospitality in the Academy? Epistemic Ignorance and the (Im)Possible Gift.»  Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 30 (1):60-82, pp. 60.

[18] Tsosie, Rebecca. 2012. «Indigenous peoples and epistemic injustice: science, ethics, and human rights. (III. Contemporary Case Studies Involving Indigenous Peoples and Science Policy through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 1164-1201).»  Washington Law Review 87 (4):1164. pp. 1136.

[19] Joks, Solveig, Liv Østmo, and John Law. 2020. «Verbing meahcci : Living Sámi lands.»  The Sociological Review 68:305-321. doi: 10.1177/0038026120905473.

[20] Porsanger, Jelena. 2012. «Indigenous Sámi religion : general considerations about relationship.» In, 37-45. Gland: IUCN, cop. 2012.

[21] Kuokkanen, Ruana. 2006. «The Logic of the Gift: Reclaiming Indigenous Peoples’ Philosophies.» In Re-Ethnicizing the Minds?: Cultural Revival in Contemporary Thought, edited by Thorsten  Botz-Bornstein and Jürgen  Hengelbrock, 251-271. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi. pp. 260.

[22] Glissant, Édouard. 2006. une nouvelle région du monde. Paris: Gallimard.

[23] Law, John. 2015. “What´s wrong with a one-world world?”, Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory Vol 16.

[24] Pieski, Outi. 2020. “Decolonizing the Museum and Public Art”, (07.10.2020),

[25] Cameron, Fiona. 2007. «Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects – Traditional Concerns, New Discourses,.» In Theorizing digital cultural heritage : a critical discourse, edited by Sarah Kenderdine and Fiona Cameron, 49-75. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[26] Cameron, 2007, pp. 54

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