The smoke sauna tradition of Võromaa, Estonia, the cultivation and culture of the argan tree in Morocco, and Askiya dueling debate of Uzbekistan are all now officially recognized as unique parts of the world’s heritage. The traditions are among those UNESCO added to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list at its session last month in Paris, which concluded on November 28.
Three elements were added to the list in need of urgent safeguarding alongside 34 other global items. Inclusion on the list, which was started in 2008, is aimed at encouraging the preservation of immaterial heritage. As UNESCO explains, the Representative List “serves to raise awareness of intangible heritage and provide recognition to communities’ traditions and know-how that reflect their cultural diversity.” In other words, UNESCO hopes the list will give a higher profile to the newly recognized traditions, and leverage where they are slipping away.
Those listed in need of urgent safeguarding include the Isukuti dance of Kenya, where funds for its costumes and instruments aren’t available, and those who still practice it are growing old. Also nominated was the Mapoyo oral tradition of Venezuela, where a similar problem with an aging leadership is compounded by land loss due to mining and public schools discouraging the language. Alongside these traditions are inclusions in less dire straits like the “coming forth of the masks and puppets” ritual in Markala, the “joking relationships” of Niger that facilitate playful taunting between communities, the knuckle-bone shooting game in Mongolia that involves sheep knuckle bones, and Japan’s Washi paper, which is made from mulberry plant fibers.
No American traditions have made the list yet, although there are certainly plenty of endangered American Indian oral traditions that warrant inclusion. Possibly the United States losing its UNESCO voting rights last year hasn’t helped the country’s cultural profile in the organization. While the Intangible Cultural Heritage list can’t on its own keep Lebanese folk poetry or Bulgarian carpet-making alive, it can help rally communities behind them, as that’s the only way they will survive.