Archive for June, 2011

Intangible ethics meets multicultural complexity


– applying the Teemaneng Declaration principles to the multicultural problem of Turtle Mountain


by James A. M. Ritchie

The Teemaneng Declaration provides a benchmark guide to ethics, principles and standards for the preservation and interpretation of intangible cultural heritage. In working with the various aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities of my own Turtle Mountain region, Teemaneng has provided a useful practical guide. Unfortunately human beings have a way of coming up with complex situations that defy easy treatment.

The Turtle Mountain discussed in this article is properly speaking a plateau, roughly forty miles east-to-west and about thirty miles north-to-south, straddling the international border between Canada and the United States. Geologically it is a remnant of the Missouri Plateau which became isolated 15,000 to 25,000 years ago during the last Ice Age period.

The geological isolation of Turtle Mountain has created a unique ecozone, differing in both climate and lifeforms from the surrounding country. In the relatively flat environment of the Great Plains, its stubby height of only 500 to 1000 feet above the surrounding plain means that it affects weather for hundreds of miles.

This natural refugia has attracted plant, animal and human life because in dry years it is often the only wet place. In glacial times it was above zero Celsius due to warm springs. In hot weather it is cooler than the surrounding countryside. It can cloak itself in sudden impenetrable mist, and then just as suddenly clear in blinding sun or bright moonlight.

The Teemaneng principles guide us to prioritize the authenticity and cultural ownership of the “communities [who] are the custodians”. It also reminds us that “where more than one community has intangible values associated with a cultural space the co-existence of these values should be recognized, respected and encouraged.”

Every human culture that has ever visited the central areas of the Great Plains has left its mark on Turtle Mountain. Many of these cultures have left behind living and distinct legacies such that the region today is home to scores of cultures and local languages. Turtle Mountain is a place of cross-cultural synthesis, and it is also a place of cross-cultural conflict.

Beneath the layer of European-descent who colonized the area in the 19th Century are a series of aboriginal layers. As a refugia the plateau became a much sought-after objective for competing cultures. It also served as a cross-roads where archaeological evidence demonstrates over ten thousand years of continuous trade routes and human occupation. Who exactly were the first human communities to meet and compete on the mountain cannot be known for certainty. What remains as the legacy is an interweaving of aboriginal cultures, which includes so-called “pure forms”, but also includes many mixtures, many of which have acquired their own cultural distinctiveness.

It is human nature to be aware the complexity of our own special group while oversimplifying the differences among others. Celts are acutely aware of their own nationalities and clan rivalries even to the point of violence. Mennonites tend to refer to all white non-Mennonites as “the English.” Similarly, non-Aboriginals tend to refer to all Aboriginals in this country (and in the USA) as “Indians” – an inaccurate and over-generalized term. Equally, many aboriginals generalize non-aboriginals simply as “whites.”

At Turtle Mountain two broad aboriginal civilizations collided – the Siouan and the Aunishanabeg. Aunishanabeg means “original person” and so is a close cognate of aboriginal. “Siouan” doesn’t mean anything in any language as it is derived from a French attempt to pronounce a much longer complicated Aunishanabeg word. As the Siouan languages lack their own word to describe their civilization even Siouans are forced to resort to this made-up term.

Each of these civilizations is subdivided into many “nationalities” – some of which are inimical to each other. As a rough estimate, perhaps a dozen or more could, and do, lay claim to all or part of Turtle Mountain as their cultural property. Often this perception is exclusive of everyone else, sometimes it includes allowance for overlaps, and just as often it means an active proprietorial competition.

In 2008 at the Quebec world ICOMOS Conference, ICOMOS itself provided a useful solution. Turtle Mountain Chippewa [USA/Aunishanabeg] tribal chairman David Brien shared the stage with Canupawakpa Dakota chief [Canada/Siouan] Frank Brown and both spoke on “the Spirit of Place” of Turtle Mountain. Part of the appeal for the two chiefs, each a scholar in his own right, was that they could speak of their own oral tradition and perspective of the same physical place, without having to work out point-by-point agreement.

Who are, therefore, the real and authentic cultural custodians of the mountain? There is unfortunately no one answer historically, culturally, politically, or practically. One can work with one group, even several successfully, but invariably somebody will feel left out or excluded. Equally, some are always disappointed that they have failed to exclude the others. The researcher may be forced to choose sides, draw lines and even exclude. While it may not be possible to observe all of the principles of the Teemaneng Declaration all of the time; it at least provides a useful benchmark. It may not be possible to do no harm, but it can be possible to do less harm.



            The international boundary between Canada and the USA cuts through the middle of the Turtle Mountain plateau lengthwise, often with little to distinguish it. For aboriginal people in historical times the border was invisible.

Triple prong

Petroforms in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes dot the entire plateau, frequently with astronomical alignments. This form appears to mimic the indigeneous Dakota’s concept of the Orion constellation as a three-fingered hand or claw.

Turtle trail

Many petroforms appear at first glance as a random pattern. Clues to deliberate creation by aboriginal people are the absence of such forms on adjacent ridges, and the alignments of the stones. The author at right of the picture checks compass bearings.

Turtle’s back

The long low plateau suggests the overall shape of a giant turtle. Terrain features within the plateau receive zoomorphic names such as the Turtle’s Brow, Heart and Foot. Shown above is the “Turtle’s Back” terrain feature. [Photo courtesy of Phil Hossack, Winnipeg Free Press.]


James Ritchie is a Canadian of Scots-Irish descent from Turtle Mountain and has worked as a rural journalist and town archivist. As a researcher he has worked on aboriginal cultural and legal issues with Chippewa, Metis, Cree, Dene, Inuit and Dakota communities of Manitoba as well as with several European-descent enclave communities.


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