Mr. Christopher Moseley, United Kingdom
Brief textual description of the nominated element
The nominated element consists of an ethno-cultural area of south-western Latvia, whose inhabitants designate themselves Suiti, and are distinguished from the surrounding population by different cultural traditions (in dress, music, architecture, language and religious affiliation) and have done so for over three hundred years, since their ancestors, during the period of serfdom, were converted en masse to Catholicism, as opposed to the general Protestant tradition of the surrounding population. Many of the traditions that have survived to the present day, however, predate Christianity, and thus the Suiti cultural heritage presents a rare phenomenon in present-day Europe: a combination of relatively recent manifestations of Christian ritual with a much greater sub-stratum dating back to the much earlier settlement of the Baltic lands by the ancestors of these people. The element has remained consistently within the same area over centuries, in relative isolation. The landscape remains rural, the livelihood agricultural, but the population has declined severely in recent decades, for reasons outlined below. As long as the farmsteads, the basic social unit of the community, have been passed down within the same families, the cultural traditions have remained secure. Now, however, the demographic decline may reach a tipping point where the Suiti culture is in serious danger of not being transmitted further. The permanent population now consists of about two thousand people.
Criterion U.1: “The element constitutes intangible cultural heritage as defined in Article 2 of the Convention.”
Comments on the element’s conformity with the definition of intangible cultural heritage in the Convention
The element conforms to the definition of intangible cultural heritage in all the named respects. That is to say, there is a rich tradition of oral expression within the element which can be and has been documented and traced. Its most obvious outward manifestation is the dialect, which has persisted within the community despite not being included as a part of the educational curriculum or given any standardised status. (The dialect, however, is not unique to the element alone, but covers a greater area of south-western Latvia.) It is documented also in a rich range of proverbs, tales, and above all, songs. Public and private oral performance is highly prized among the Suiti. Most famous outside the community are the "Suiti Women" and their performances. The most distinctive feature of this women’s singing is the combination of improvisation by the lead singer and repetition by the remainder of the ensemble, with an undertone held by some of the members. This form of live creation of music is unique in Latvian musical culture.
Traditional rules of behaviour, especially those associated with church-going, funerals and other ceremonial acts, are in many respects peculiar to the Suiti, and reflect both their Catholic heritage and its pre-Christian antecedents.
The annual calendar of feast-days and saints' days closely follows that of the Catholic church, and in this respect differs greatly from the annual round for the surrounding population. Traditional dances, and the songs accompanying them, betray a Christian overlay on a more ancient pagan tradition of singing and dancing.
Likewise Suiti wedding ceremonies combine elements of the Christian and the ancient Balts’ pagan beliefs. The full (three-day) Suiti wedding ceremony is rarely if ever performed nowadays, but it is well documented as to each element: the dowry, the mode of dress, the accompanying singing and other festivities, the prohibitions and injunctions, the money-throwing and the feast table.
A large number of folk beliefs and customs, unique to the Suiti, have been recorded and preserved in the past century, but the present-day social structure is not conducive to passing them on.
Likewise, a large number of folk-tales explaining the origins of certain customs, the presence of certain natural phenomena or historical events, are recorded among the Suiti. And, like their neighbours elsewhere in Latvia, the Suiti are rich in traditional riddles. Further, a large number of games, incorporating counting, rhyming and set narrative sequences, have been recorded, and were played by people of all ages.
Distinctive features of fabrics and dress consist in traditions of weaving and spinning, as well as traditional knitting patterns. The folk costumes incorporate traditional patterns and motifs which have been passed continuously over many generations. A great deal is known about the origins and development of the styles, patterns, fabrics, colours, dying and spinning and weaving methods, of the traditional dress of Suiti men and women, as well as regional variations within the element, the patterns of shoes, jewellery, shawls and other worn artefacts within the element.
Criterion U.2 “a) The element is in urgent need of safeguarding because its viability is at risk despite the efforts of the community, group or, if applicable, individuals and State(s) Party(ies) concerned.
b) The element is in extremely urgent need of safeguarding because it is facing grave threats as a result of which it cannot be expected to survive without immediate safeguarding.”
Assessment of the viability of the element
The first of the two definitions is applicable to this element. There are currently few economic opportunities for sustaining the cohesion of the community. Family members and especially younger people are being drawn outside the community in search of employment and income.
There is no evidence that the education system within the element makes a provision for the passing on of local traditions. No reference is made anywhere in available sources to the regular teaching of either Suiti dialect or lore, or to any other subjects than the standard national curriculum. Evidently the national school system is not serving as a vehicle for the transmission of Suiti culture. Higher education is not available within the element.
The chief employer within the element is the public sector, providing services and infrastructure to a largely agricultural population. Forestry is an important part of the economy. However, those with traditional and unique Suiti artisan skills are unable to employ their skills for economic gain to any significant extent.
Because of the lack of urban development, the low population, and the relative paucity of accompanying infrastructure, the element has remained relatively untainted by the physical pollutants and mental stresses of modern life; it is outwardly largely unchanged over the centuries. It is important to retain the balance between the natural environment and cultural tradition that has survived so long down to our day.
Opportunities to perform traditional rituals as an integral part of private and social life, outside of the church domain, are nowadays relatively few. Tourism is not extensively developed in the region, so even performance for the benefit of tourists is not practiced. The Suiti are keenly aware of the value of their own cultural traditions, and willing to share them with outsiders, but this takes place away from the centre of their culture, in organised public performance (song festivals and the like).
Assessment of the risk of its disappearing, due, inter alia, to the lack of means for safeguarding and protecting it, or to processes of globalization and social or environmental transformation
Although the maintenance of the community’s cultural traditions has persisted down to the present day, economic pressures on the cohesion of the community are greater now than ever before. Mobility; economic dependence on external sources; lack of inclusion of cultural traditions in education system. The implications of the need to find income and work from external sources are, among other things, a breakdown of traditional roles in family life; the importation of homogeneous aspects of social and cultural life (though this is denied by the practitioners interviewed in the submission), and a weakening and homogenisation of the distinctive features of their language.
Recent discovery of oil within the element has so far only led to exploratory drilling; it is too early to say whether the deposits will have any economic bearing on the district.
The community has, according to a newspaper report included with the submission (“Safeguarding of Suiti culture – obligation of the community”, Kurzemnieks 24.2.2009), taken serious steps to rectify this lack of transmission to younger generations, by proposing the inclusion of “local subjects in the school education system” – this included both local crafts and (in the original Latvian version) teaching of the local dialect. This is at present only a proposal, however. No evidence of teaching materials in the dialect was presented.
The community has expressed a wish to attract investment in the area. Private investment would have to be selected sensitively, so as not to upset a delicate and fragile cultural balance. As for public investment at the regional or national level, it is well known that Latvia is currently experiencing an economic emergency close to national bankruptcy, and rigorous cuts in government spending are being implemented – funding for cultural ventures would necessarily take a low priority.
Other comments on the urgent need of safeguarding the element
Part of the motivation behind increased recent action by Suiti activists is the recent (2007) administrative redistribution enacted by the Latvian government. Traditionally (actually since the late 19th century) distributed between three rural parishes (Gudenieki, Jūrkalne – up to 1928 Fēliksberga, and Alsunga – up to 1950 Alšvanga), activists see a threat to their cohesion in the redrawing of boundaries, assigning them to the jurisdiction of larger towns (Liepāja, Kuldīga). Suiti activists have, according to a dedicated web-site (www.suitunovads.lv/lv/Suiti_turas/), taken their protest to demonstrate in Riga. Members of the three parish councils claim that central government has ignored their wish to create a single Suiti District (suitu novads). At the regional (rajons) level, in fact the administration was devolved between these two major towns from 1950 (in the Soviet period) to 2009.
There has been no hint of “national” separatism on the part of the population in the past, but by 2008, popular discontent over the course of administrative reform led to a decision by the relevant councils, supported by community activists, to declare a temporary “republic” on the date of the next local government elections if reforms were not enacted.
However, it is not clear whether this is seen by most Suiti as a threat to their cultural independence or merely a reduction in their political power, so from the point of view of this submission, it is a secondary argument.
Criterion U.3: “Safeguarding measures are elaborated that may enable the community, group or, if applicable, individuals concerned to continue the practice and transmission of the element.”
Assessment of the feasibility and sufficiency of the safeguarding plan
Safeguarding measures are already in place, but they have been developed relatively recently, adding to the urgency of their task. Most notably, the Suiti Ethnic Cultural Centre was established only in 2001, by which time the demographic decline was serious and the threat to cultural continuity was grave.
Since 2007 a part of Alsunga Castle has been set aside for the use of the Suiti Ethnic Cultural Centre as a research and exhibition centre. However, the castle requires extensive restoration before it can be put to such use, and the Centre does not at present have the funds to carry out this work.
Summer schools for Suiti children, organised since 2002, have concentrated on the musical aspects of their intangible heritage - drone singing, playing traditional instruments. Motivation to attend the schools is said to be high - this is a vital aspect of the element's cultural survival, and their continuance must be assured. No doubt the self-esteem of the younger members is increased by the success of performing groups in events outside the community.
The community's web-site, www.suitunovads.lv, is extremely well-written and informative, but so far available only in Latvian. As with other activities toward safeguarding the culture, financial constraints are hampering the expansion of effort, rather than lack of enthusiasm.
A detailed, budgeted set of proposals for safeguarding measures was presented. The budget itself was based on criteria which were not explained, so I will not comment on the amount of funding proposed. As to their usefulness and viability, I would comment:
1.1 Teaching traditional musical skills to young children is to be encouraged, but continued opportunities to practice them must be assured throughout their education. This problem is partly addressed under item 1.3 - the music school curriculum.
1.2 UNESCO Associated Schools Project: involvement is a sound idea.
1.3 - see above.
1.4 Preparations for this venture are evidently already under way.
1.5 It is not stated whether teaching materials for this item are already being prepared for the 2010/2011 school year.
1.6 will depend on the number and the willingness of participants.
1.7 Support for adult folk song and dance groups is a vital part of the cultural heritage programme.
1.8 It is not evident how "the general public" will be made aware of the practical training seminars, or their content; a five-year programme of seminars is envisaged, but its purpose is not made clear.
1.9 Certainly summer schools should be encouraged.
2.1 Midsummer celebrations are an important element of Latvian culture generally, and the individual local traditions are highly appreciated.
2.2 Wedding traditions are indeed unique among the Suiti, but the attraction of the ritual for those who are actually being married might be outweighed by other practical considerations.
2.3 While those with the skills to pass on the traditions of costume making are still available, this should be organised and encouraged.
2.4 Bagpipe skills have already died out, but are well documented and can be restored.
2.5 A band of traditional musicians, able to perform outside the community, would attract prestige and possibly revenue.
3.1 Of course study and research should be carried out where possible - for whom and by whom?
3.2 Inscription on the Latvian List of Intangible Cultural Heritage is promised with the submission.
3.3 Making church register data publicly available will be an invaluable resource.
3.4 There is a wealth of folk-song material potentially available, but not yet collected in one accessible resource.
3.5 Toponym collection is vital in view of the demographic decline and the loss of collective memory threatened by an ageing population.
3.6 This publication venture implies a written form of the "language" (more correctly dialect). The orthography is not agreed. Perhaps transcription of oral sources is envisaged? This is not clear.
3.7 Codification of the "language" implies distinct differences from the surrounding dialect continuum. This is not proven in the material submitted.
3.8 See above. Would the potential circulation justify the cost of production? By volunteers?
3.9 Worthwhile continuation of an existing venture.
3.10 No doubt this documentary would raise interest within Latvia.
3.11 A Suiti Folk Festival could certainly be attempted.
3.12 Likewise and a continuation of an existing venture.
4.1 Restoration of Alsunga Castle as a research centre is the most expensive budget item, but if carried out, it could be very important as a resource.
4.2 An open-air museum is a well-tried means of preserving cultural heritage and could be encouraged. How would it be publicised to attract outsiders?
4.3 The need for this restoration has not been made explicit in the submission.
5.1 A "state support programme" is a vague objective with a vaguely stated outcome, and dependent on changes in central government priorities.
5.2 The present state of the road surface is not made clear; transport connections are not the evident reason for the communities' isolation.
5.3 Is the church not responsible for the upkeep of religious buildings?
These are my comments on the validity of the proposals.
Criterion U.4: “The element has been nominated following the widest possible participation of the community, group or, if applicable, individuals concerned and with their free, prior and informed consent”
Comments on the participation of the community, group or, if applicable, individuals concerned
Adequate documentation was provided with the submission to prove that the three local councils within the element, as well as the active cultural organisations (Suitu Novads and the Suiti Ethnic Cultural Centre), gave their wholehearted support to efforts to safeguard Suiti cultural heritage. It is clear that these two groups, so recently established, have galvanised public opinion in favour of action to save Suiti heritage. Public meetings were reported in a regional newspaper and stressed the unanimity of the participants, especially with regard to collaboration with UNESCO. The presence of representatives of the Ministry of Culture gave an assurance of support at government level.
The recent photographs submitted with the application, as well as the documentary film material, further indicated to level of public support for heritage preservation.
Comments on their free, prior and informed consent
As stated above, public meetings held on at least two occasions in the past year gave a clear indication that there is a general and growing support for organised efforts to safeguard Suiti heritage. If there are dissenters from this view, they have not at least been reported. The local councils were also unanimous in their support for a submission for Intangible Cultural Heritage site status. To inform themselves of what is implied in the submission, representatives visited designated cultural spaces in neighbouring Estonia in recent years.
Comments on respect for customary practices governing access to the element, if applicable
Consultation among community members within the element has been close and consistent throughout the process. Members of the community have, according to the press reports and minutes of council meetings submitted with the application, been kept informed of the implications of the application. No customary practices have been violated.
Criterion U.5: “The element is included in an inventory of the intangible cultural heritage present in the territory(ies) of the submitting State(s) Party(ies) as defined in Articles 11 and 12”
Comments on the nomination’s conformity with Criterion U.5
The Suiti Cultural Space has been included by the State Party in a "List of Most Important Values of Latvian Culture", as one of thirteen distinctive expressions of intangible cultural heritage, within the terms of a concept approved in December 2008, "On Preservation of Latvian Intangible Cultural Heritage". The Latvian Ministry of Culture will include this element on a separate inventory of intangible cultural heritage. This list is to serve as the Latvian inventory of intangible cultural heritage as defined under Articles 11 and 12 of the Convention. The State Party acknowledges the unique cultural heritage of this small and dwindling community and the need to safeguard its future.
Comments on your recommendation
My recommendation to inscribe the nominated element is based on the following considerations:
Owing to the lack of employment opportunities in the community, there is a tendency for younger people of employable age, particularly men, to leave the community to work in more distant locations during the week, and to be ‘weekend Suiti’, a factor which they freely admit. This economic consideration is one of the threats to the continuity of the element. While it is true that the measures envisaged here will not guarantee economic independence and prosperity to the region, they will at least ensure that the wishes of the heritage population to control their own future and decide on their destiny from within will be respected, and their chances of survival as a social unit enhanced.
Low population growth represents a further threat to its continuity. A low birth-rate is general in Latvia, and the Suiti cultural space is no exception. The demographic danger is much greater in this case because of the scarcity of employment opportunities within the community.
Some activities which are preserved as cultural traditions are an integral part of daily life in the home and community; some are of occasional and ceremonial significance. I support the contention of the Suiti representative cultural organisations that the maintenance and restoration of Suiti cultural traditions is of vital importance and contributes to the cultural wealth of Latvia as a whole. If I have reservations about the submission, they concern those aspects which involve the "language" of the Suiti, aspects which were not adequately documented to make a convincing case.
Certification by examiner
By submitting this report, I hereby certify that I am not a national of the State(s) Party(ies) submitting this nomination and that this report truly and accurately reflects my examination of the nomination.