In an Indigenous context, cultural heritage refers to ideas, objects, artistic expressions, practices, knowledge and places that are valued because they are culturally meaningful, connected to shared memory, or linked to collective identity. Indigenous cultural heritage is not separate from Indigenous identity and Indigenous life. It is inherited from ancestors as a gift to next generations. Indigenous cultural heritage also embraces colonial legacies identified by Indigenous Peoples as being of historic value due to associations with important aspects of Indigenous history, such as the Residential Schools System.
Each Indigenous group speaks for cultural heritage that is unique to them. For this reason, Indigenous cultural heritage is an inherent right that colonial frameworks (heritage laws, programs and policies) are unable to address. Indigenous peoples have a right to identify their own cultural heritage, interpret its meaning and determine its disposition. They must also have a voice in shared heritage – the places and stories that are important to Canada and Canadians as a whole. In keeping with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous rights are not affected by Indigenous groups choosing to participate “in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”
Many challenges are faced by Indigenous peoples as caretakers of their cultural heritage. With respect to cultural places, we can point to the struggle over the future of Victoria Island in the National Capital Region, the destruction of spiritual and archaeological sites for resource and property development projects, the desire of some communities to conserve residential schools and cemeteries, and the difficulty in securing funding for heritage sites belonging to Indigenous organizations. Many communities are also coping with an increased demand on Elders and others to comment on projects and address gaps in cultural heritage knowledge for land-use and resource projects. Opportunities to protect, study and interpret Indigenous heritage are also growing. In increasing numbers Indigenous students are pursuing post-secondary educations; Indigenous museums, cultural centres and education programs operating in Canada are hiring Indigenous staff; and Indigenous peoples are becoming directly involved in the planning of national, territorial and federal parks.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action acknowledge the importance of Indigenous people owning their own history. Conventional organizations funded by governments, grants and donations across Canada have been inviting Indigenous people to participate in discussions framed by the hosts, but it is time for a different approach. Canada needs an organization that can focus on priorities and opportunities determined to be most relevant by Indigenous groups themselves, including issues related to consultations, conservation, resource development and the intersecting worlds of nature, culture, law and community wellness.
For more information, please see a list of organizations and tools here.