Who are Suiti?
The historic region of Suiti is a small Catholic anclave in the predominantly Protestant Western Latvia. When in 1561 the whole Courland became Protestant, Alsunga and the surrounding areas had to follow the suit. Things started to change when Johan Ulrich von Schwerin - heir to Alsunga estate, while in military service for the King of Poland, fell in love with beautiful Polish aristocrat Barbara Konarska. To get approval for their marriage in 1623, Johan had to become a Catholic. When later in 1632, after his father's death, the couple returned to Alsunga, Johan invited Jesuits to convert all residents on his estate into Catholics. That is how the Suiti community and this small Catholic anclave came into existance.
The religious differences and sometimes even violent conflicts resulted in a high degree of self-isolation. This allowed the Suiti community to preserve in this small area very unique traditional culture, rich with songs, dances, beliefs, traditions and many other elements-long abandoned and forgotten in other, more modern parts of Latvia. In the 20th century, Alsunga was the last place where traditional dresses were still used , where traditional music instruments such as bagpipes, kokles and horns were played in normal everyday life of the Suiti community.
Many elements of this heritage are still alive today. Some are step by step, gradually recovered. Wearing of traditional dresses on festive occasions is returning. Teaching of local traditions has been introduced in the Alsungas secondary school. Efforts are made to preserve Suiti language - an old dialect of Latvian language. The very specific style of women singing, believed to origin in pre-christianity period, is today used more and more. Altogether 52 813 folk songs and variations have been recorded in this small area. Suiti have very special marriage traditions, well recorded, elements of which are widely used. The very uniqueness of this small Catholic anclave in 2009 has also been recognized by UNESCO. The Fourth Intergovernmental Committe in Abu Dhabi inscribed Suiti Cultural Space on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Today only about 3000 people live in the historic Suiti region, two thirds of which can claim Suiti ancestry.
The local community is also famous for its own character traits - conservative, slow tempered, very warm and frendly towards locals, but suspicous and reserved towards outsiders. It can be slightly more difficult to introduce new concepts and ideas to the Suiti than elsewhere. But once you have succeeded, Suiti are not likely to change their opinion. Very straitforward talk and harsh sense of humour is common here. In older days, Suiti were also famous brawlers - rough guys, who never left a bad word go unpunished. As for centuries marriages with Protestants were considere a sin, the whole community today is interknitt by family trees.
The sense of local identity became less apparent in the Soviet period. But it is still alive and vital today. We believe, that if we continue to work on it, the Suiti community can still resist the everpresent threats of assimilation and experience not just its 400 years, but also 500 years and many more, enriching with their unique Catholic identity and culture not just Latvia, but also Europe and the whole World.