Cultural Heritage and Sacred Sites: World Heritage from an Indigenous Perspective

A May 15, 2002 Panel Discussion at New York University

Speeches can be seen on Dialogue Between Nations .

Access also some world Indigenous communities' case studies of sacred sites

The INKA CHALLENGE: From desecration of Human Remains to Sacred Sites... Inka burial site found at Machu Picchu - Appropriately, the news were released on Columbus Day 2002! The archeological and tourist worlds may rejoice, but for Indigenous Peoples, it is one more burial site and three more Inka human remains which are being desecrated

During the International Year of Cultural Heritage: CULTURAL HERITAGE AND SACRED SITES: World Heritage from an Indigenous Perspective

The United Nations General Assembly on November 21, 2001 proclaimed 2002 as the International Year of Cultural Heritage with UNESCO at its leadership.

On that day, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura stated:

People all over the world need to be made aware of the importance of cherishing our varied heritage, both the treasures of our physical cultural heritage and the intangible heritage of traditions and cultural practices. In learning to appreciate and value our own heritage, we can learn to appreciate the heritage of other cultures. This is an essential step towards ensuring peaceful dialogue and mutual understanding. Furthermore, heritage preservation is essential if we are to retain the wealth of our cultural diversity and ensure that the world is enriched rather than impoverished by globalization."

The year 2002 will remain very important to Indigenous Peoples as the year of the First Session of the newly adopted United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The symbolism of this first meeting during a year dedicated to Cultural Heritage was very timely as the descendants of the first peoples of the world, who are represented in this Forum, embody the meaning and spirit of cultural heritage.

During the two-weeks First Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at United Nations Headquarters in May 2002 in NYC, many parallel events took place sponsored by NGOs and UN agencies. Marie-Danielle Samuel, Yachay Wasi, planned a panel discussion on behalf of the NGO Committee on the UN International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on May 15, 2002 at New York University. She organized this event in collaboration with the NYU School of Law and with the participation of Indigenous representatives and United Nations officers.

To widen the scope of information, the NGO Committee on the UN International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples asked the world Indigenous community to share case studies involving Sacred Sites. 33 world Indigenous nations responded. A compilation of these studies xeroxed by the NYU School of Law was given to Panel attendees.

The panel discussions were moderated by Professor Russel Barsh of the NYU School of Law and Roberto Mucaro Borrero, Taino, Chair of the NGO Committee on the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Roberto expressed regrets that Joanne Wilmot, Australia, one of the originators of the WHIPCOE concept (see below) and Josie Weninger, Canada, Chair of the Winnipeg WHIPCOE workshop could not attend.

Dr. Jones Kyazze, Representative of UNESCO to the United Nations spoke first after the Welcome to the Territory by Marguerite Smith of the Shinnecock Nation. He introduced this International year and was followed by Dr. Sarah Titchen from UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris, France who spoke of the concept of WHIPCOE (see below), Luis Delgado Hurtado, President of Yachay Wasi, who gave the Inka perspective, Marguerite Smith, a lawyer, who introduced the Shinnecock Hills study, Delphine Red Shirt, a writer, who spoke on the sacredness of the Black Hills for the Lakota nation. Henrietta Marrie, officer of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity, gave the tie between biodiversity, world heritage and sacred sites. Finally John Scott of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva spoke of ethical considerations in cultural heritage. Both Ms. Marrie and Mr. Scott are Aboriginal Australians.

The speeches of speakers and some of the case studies can be accessed on the website Dialogue Between Nations, courtesy of its producer Natalie Drache. http://www.dialoguebetweennations.com

The 100-pages case studies and report of the panel were mailed to the members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and to all participants by Yachay Wasi.



All Native Americans’ and Indigenous Peoples’ Genesis are associated with a specific area in their countries from which, for centuries, they derived lessons, strength and unity of the tribes and nations in regard to the Creator and their own purpose in the Creation.

These spots on earth are the equivalent of Medieval cathedrals for Christians and most of these places, known as Sacred Sites, are invaded or otherwise attacked by the political governments and the materialistic greed of the surrounding society.

United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

PART III Article 12

Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature, as well as the right to the restitution of cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free and informed.

PART III Article 13

Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of human remains. States shall take effective measures, in conjunction with the indigenous peoples concerned, to ensure that indigenous sacred places, including burial sites, be preserved, respected and protected.



The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the World Heritage Convention) was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1972. 2002 is the year of its 30th Anniversary.

Each year, more sites around the world are proposed by States Parties to the Convention to be added to the World Heritage List. The World Heritage Committee, in charge of inscribing sites as well as of examining the state of conservation of those already included on the List, was established by the World Heritage Convention. With 167 States Parties, the Convention is one of the international instruments to bring together the largest number of countries.

The 730 sites already protected according to the terms of the1972 Convention are situated in 125 countries and are divided into the following categories: 563 cultural sites, 144 natural sites and 23 mixed sites. The World Heritage List was last updated at the June 2002 meeting of the World Heritage Committee (Budapest, Hungary).

Many of these sites have a spiritual meaning to the Indigenous peoples living in their vicinity. To name a few (partial descriptions excerpted from World Heritage website):

Australia: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park - Formerly called Uluru (Ayers Rock - Mount Olga) National Park… The traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta are the Anangu Aboriginal people.

Peru: Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu - At 2,430 metres above sea level, on a mountain site of extraordinary beauty, in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, Machu Picchu was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire…

United States of America: Mesa Verde -A great concentration of Anasazi Indian dwellings, built from the 6th to the 12th centuries, can be found on the Mesa Verde plateau in southwest Colorado…

The justification of inscription of some of these sites on the World Heritage List came from the associations between people and place. Uluru-Kata Tjuta is recognized as a World Heritage cultural landscape demonstrating the maintenance of traditions, management of the landscape and outstanding associations between the local Indigenous communities and the environment. Machu Picchu is inscribed on the World Heritage list in recognition of its outstanding cultural and natural heritage.


A Forum of Indigenous Peoples assembled in Cairns, Australia on 24 November 2000, presented the following submission to the World Heritage Committee’s 24th session:

“That the World Heritage Committee facilitate the establishment of a World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts (WHIPCOE) pursuant to the provisions of Section 10 (3) of the World Heritage Convention, a body that would bring new competencies and expertise to complement other expert groups, to support the objectives of the World Heritage Committee in the provision of expert Indigenous advice on the holistic knowledge, traditions and cultural values of Indigenous Peoples relative to the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, including current operational guidelines.”

From the Progress Report on the Proposed World Heritage Indigenous Peoples Council of Experts (WHIPCOE):

“At the request of the twenty-fifth session of the Bureau of the World Heritage Committee (June 2001), the WHIPCOE Working Group met in Winnipeg, Canada, 6-8 November 2001. Representatives and Indigenous experts from Australia, Belize, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America winnipeg attended the workshop along with a representative of the Andean NGO Yachay Wasi, representatives of the Advisory Bodies (ICOMOS, ICCROM, and IUCN), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Heritage Centre.” winnipeg

This Progress Report and the summary of the Winnipeg WHIPCOE Workshop were presented at the 11-16 December 2001 meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Helsinki, Finland.

From the report of the meeting WHC-01/CONF.208/24 page 57: “…the Committee did not approve the establishment of WHIPCOE as a consultative body of the Committee or as a network to report to the Committee. The Committee did not provide funding for a second meeting to discuss WHIPCOE as proposed in WHC-01/CONF.208/13. However, the Committee encouraged professional research and exchange of views on the subject.

In this spirit, the May 15, 2002 panel did provide a forum to discuss issues relating to World Heritage and Indigenous Peoples and attracted attention to the issues of preservation of sacred sites and respect of Indigenous remains, two issues which somehow have a tendency to be overlooked by other more "pressing" issues.  These two issues were mentioned repeatedly in Observers statements and in the report of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues.  

In June 2001, Yachay Wasi organized its first Encounter of Indigenous Communities in the High Andes in the village of Acopia, Dept of Cuzco, Peru. At the end of the 5-days meeting, a statement was faxed to UNESCO World Heritage Centre asking that Machu Picchu be recognized and respected as a Sacred Site and that Indigenous Peoples have a say in its protection so that incidents such as the chipping of the ancestral stone of Inti Watana by a beer commercial crane in September 2000 can be prevented in the future. inti watana2001 inti watana detail