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Needs | Action Plan | Products & Processes | Principles | Mobilising Identity | Using CRA


Auditing dispersed knowledge:
a step prior to Cultural Resources Management

Much has been written about Cultural Resources Management (CRM) and the management of intangible heritage . There are a number of problems with CRM projects as we have seen them implemented in South Africa.

  • Some CRM methodologies assume a stable identity and a coherent community as a point of departure, whereas the knowledge base may be fragmented with unequal access to those resources. The notion of a community may be unrealistic;
  • Some approaches see cultural resources as folkloric performance or having to do with archaeological remains. This approach undervalues the community’s intellectual capacity and at the same time prioritises that which outsiders have designated as significant;
  • Some CRM efforts emanate from the dominant institutions, such as National Parks or government departments, where the epistemology and cultural framework is that of the dominant culture. The dominant group has not understood the indigenous knowledge systems of the non-dominant group and is thus handicapped in its attempts to locate that which may be of value to the community’s financial and spiritual well being. There may also be other issues that impede any real partnership, such as unresolved land and natural resource disputes.

There are many indigenous peoples like the ‡Khomani San who have lost their sense of community and identity by being dispossessed of their territories and becoming physically dispersed. They have experienced involuntary language loss and some of their important social institutions have become dysfunctional. Any notion that such a fractured ‘community’ can create collective management systems to handle their intangible heritage is hopelessly at odds with reality.

In the case of the ‡Khomani San, a land claim provided a strategically important focal point for collective action, since there was only the weakest sense of identity and community holding the descendants together. Very valuable traditional knowledge was dying out in silence without young people even being aware that it was present in their families.

San spokesperson and traditional leader, Dawid Kruiper, was aware of the rapid deterioration of traditional knowledge and identity. He realised that the community would need an external partnership to help it gather itself together and begin the hard work of reconstructing lives and livelihoods.

The SASI team realised during initial investigations that it would be premature to help the San community design a CRM Plan. The presence of the ancient language outside the core group suggested that important cultural resources were likely scattered and fragmented. The splintered community required a prior step, that of creating an inventory of it’s dispersed knowledge and cultural resources. The community also required some kind of process whereby it could rediscover itself. These two needs could be neatly brought together so that the process of auditing cultural knowledge would help people re-establish a sense of community and unearth hidden ties of culture and genealogy.

The quest to provide adequate support emerged into a specific methodology that we have called Cultural Resources Auditing (CRA). The CRA methodology may be valuable in helping other indigenous peoples with similar needs and concerns. The process involves a series of stages that allow the owners of the knowledge and the younger generations to enter into dialogue about what has been saved, what has been lost, what is of value, and how this value can be realised (i.e. made to serve as a practical resource). The slow pace of the CRA builds awareness amongst elders and youth about the possibility of managing, conserving and recycling cultural resources particularly intangible heritage. The exploration of identity, often taken for granted by dominant groups, is a critically important exercise to help stabilise a community during land claim and resettlement processes.

Most creative activities in our daily lives are drawn from our cultural context and from our upbringing, including our sense of identity and self-confidence. The crisis for a community such as the southern Kalahari San comes when young people are involuntarily separated from their own culture and yet continue to experience stigma and low social status. They lose confidence and / or the ability to draw on age-old wisdom, ways of thinking and learning. In its most obvious expression, they are unable to understand the language or culture of their parents and grandparents. A very important intergenerational link has been severed. They do not have a firm foundation on which to build their lives and livelihoods. They are unable to apply the knowledge of their parents and grandparents to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of them. In more extreme cases, new role models and value systems are drawn from the harsh world of urban alienation.

Our work with the youth and elders required developing a self-reflective awareness of what was being lost and what could be regained through various projects related to auditing the language and culture of the elders. Below are some of the key concepts that emerged from our work.

Cultural heritage: our cultural heritage is that which our foremothers and forefathers have achieved, experienced or handed down to future generations. Usually our cultural heritage is infused by the experiences and interactions of different cultures and languages beyond the boundary of one group. A cultural heritage may be a living thing, or it may be preserved but not in daily use.

Tangible cultural heritage: A tangible heritage is one that can be stored and physically touched. This includes items produced by the cultural group such as traditional clothing, utensils (such as beadwork, water vessels), or vehicles (such as the ox wagon). Tangible heritages include great monuments such as temples, pyramids, and public monuments. Though a tangible heritage can perish, it is generally more obvious how it can be conserved than intangible heritages that are at greater risk and can be lost for all time. Historically, national policies have given more attention to conserving large public man-made structures as valuable heritage, than managing the conservation and use of intangible heritage.
Intangible cultural heritage: An intangible heritage is that which exists intellectually in the culture. It is not a physical or tangible item. Intangible heritage includes songs, myths, beliefs, superstitions, oral poetry, as well as various forms of traditional knowledge such as ethnobotanical knowledge. For the southern Kalahari San, each tree and many other physical sites are part of their intangible heritage as their history is associated with these sites through stories, names and songs.

Cultural resources: a cultural resource is an element of knowledge gathered from daily context in a particular cultural setting that can be mobilised to positively impact on the quality of life of the individual or group. For example, when one has a stomachache, a dry stick from the bitterhout bush can be collected and chewed on. This will relieve certain types of stomach pains. This is communal cultural knowledge being applied to improve quality of life. This information was not learned from a book, and does not require literacy. Cultural resources include traditional indigenous knowledge systems, but also song, dance, knowledge of community history and experience, the ability to interpret events from a particular, culturally-informed position, etc. (For a useful summary description of indigenous / traditional knowledge see Grenier, 1998: 2).

A cultural resource is distinct from cultural heritage artefacts as the latter may or may not have a current application. For example, a headdress in a museum collection is a tangible cultural heritage item, but it is not in practical use, so it is not being used as a cultural resource. However a group that is concerned with managing its cultural heritage might re-introduce the museum piece into a healing ritual. At this point the heritage item has become a resource for the community to draw on, in this case they are seeking good health and the blessing of their ancestors. Some examples of cultural resources include:

Knowledge of medicinal plants: The San learn the names of all significant desert plants, how to gather and process particular plants for medicinal treatment, yet without destroying the plant colony or the ability of the species or individual plat to reproduce. This knowledge is not written down, it is only communicated orally and learned through practice.
· Myths: Though myths can appear to be fanciful tales, they can also be a crucial entry point to understanding intangible culture. They communicate important information such as the locations of water sites, the typical behaviour of certain animals, or even how to work with emotions and conflicts within a community to avoid strife.

Topographical knowledge: San elders know the names of particular sites in their territory as well as being able to distinguish key features of the land that can be used to guide hunters, travellers or food gatherers over terrain that can be dangerous. The ‡Khomani have given names to certain pans (depressions in the desert that gather water after rainfall) such as “vomit up pan” or “diarrhoea pan” to indicate non-potable water. This information is passed from generation to generation.

Cultural resources management: consists of the various processes whereby cultural resources (tangible and intangible) are evaluated and managed to maintain and maximise their benefit to the community and individuals. In particular, this involves the communication of information from one generation to the next. In a stable society, these processes are taken for granted. There are social institutions in place to ensure this transfer and maintenance of information, such as schools, meeting spaces, places of worship, work habits, work songs, competitions, story telling, etc. With displaced peoples many of these institutions have broken down or become dysfunctional, or they have been taken over by the institutions of the dominant culture, therefore ensuring cultural resources transfer of a different kind. Through a process of awareness raising, training and support, communities can rebuild social institutions to revitalise their management systems (e.g. a community can work with the Government to create schools that assist in the learning of traditional skills, use museums as heritage learning centres, etc).

Cultural resources auditing: is the process of creating an inventory of cultural resources that are considered important by members of the community. Mostly this work is conducted with the elders who are the sole holders of particularly vulnerable knowledge (e.g. a language, a musical tradition, healing rituals) that they wish to pass on to the younger generation, but where the opportunities or interest for intergenerational dialogue are not present.

The immediate purpose of auditing intangible cultural resources is to create tangible materials that help represent, explain and manage what is otherwise invisible. The tools of the CRA rarely capture the full complexity of traditional knowledge systems. The knowledge of just one elder surpasses what can be placed on maps and in books. The tools should not be seen as a substitute for oral knowledge or traditional learning systems; they are there to help audit what is at risk and create media to help others learn and appreciate that which was previously invisible. In this particular project, the auditing process has meant creating tangible expressions of intangible heritage to help young people understand it, value it, and work with it in a different medium than was perhaps traditional.

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