UNESCO adds Suiti culture to list of heritages in need of safeguarding

The Suiti culture of Latvia’s Kurzeme province—perhaps best known for its colorful folk costumes and distinctive singing style—is in need of “urgent safeguarding,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The organization’s Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage, meeting in Abu Dhabi, has named the Suiti as one of the first 12 cultures or cultural practices added to the “List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding,” UNESCO announced Oct. 1.

The Suiti, who are Catholic, are today located primarily in three parishes—Alsunga, Gudenieki and Jūrkalne—according to the Web site www.suitunovads.lv. The Web site’s creators want the Latvian government to establish a distinct administrative district for the Suiti.

According to UNESCO, only a few older people have a good knowledge of Suiti cultural traditions. In all, about 2,000 people belong to the culture.

“The Suiti cultural space is characterized by a number of distinct features,” according to UNESCO, “including vocal drone singing performed by Suiti women, wedding traditions, colourful traditional costumes, the Suiti language, local cuisine, religious traditions, celebrations of the annual cycle, and a remarkable number of folk songs, dances and melodies recorded in this community.”

An urgent need exists to spread the cultural heritage and to involve more people in its preservation, the UNESCO committee said. In its application to UNESCO, the Suiti community warned that its language is the most endangered and could disappear within 20 years.

The community’s application listed a number of measures that have been proposed to preserve Suiti culture, such as teaching children to play the kokle, organizing summer camps to teach children Suiti traditions and restoring the Alsunga castle, which would become home for the Suiti Culture Research Centre.

A video about the Suiti culture may be viewed on the UNESCO Web site.

Also added to the “List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” were:

  • The Kalyady Tsars (Christmas Tsars) ritual and festive event celebrated in the village of Semezhava in the Minsk region of Belarus.
  • China’s Qiang New Year festival from the province of Sichuan.
  • Traditional design and practices for building the wooden arch bridges found in China’s Fujian and Zhejiang provinces.
  • The traditional textile techniques of spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering used by the Li people in China’s Hainan Province.
  • The secular and liturgical oral tradition known as paghjella and found on the French island of Corsica.
  • The traditions and practices of the Mijikenda ethnic groups associated with the sacred Kaya forests in Kenya.
  • The Sanké collective fishing rite found among people in the Ségou region of Mali.
  • The traditional folk dance performed by ethnic groups in Khovd and Uvs provinces of Mongolia.
  • The Tuuli oral tradition of heroic epics from Mongolia.
  • The traditional music of Mongolia performed on a wooden wind instrument known as the tsuur, which combines the sounds of both the instrument and the human throat.
  • The sung poetry of the Ca trù style found in the north of Vietnam.

The song festival tradition of Latvia was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in 2003. That list, however, does not suggest cultural elements are endangered.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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