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Living and Breathing: Keeping Alive the Dutch Culture of the Community

Updated: Mar 27

by William Minnick

What do culture and heritage mean in a community? In 2003, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) started a campaign to preserve a less understood type of cultural heritage. This organization, which has been fighting to protect and promote monuments and physical structures of significance through the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is working to preserve culturally significant things that are not physical. This concept is called intangible cultural heritage or living culture.

Defining Intangible Cultural Heritage

According to UNESCO, “Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

Unlike tangible cultural heritage, symbols found in museums and monuments, these symbols cannot be physically protected. Instead, UNESCO identifies places and cultures that utilize intangible cultural heritage and educates the public that this non-physical heritage is living and breathing and hopes to protect their practices into the future.

UNESCO lists the characteristics of intangible cultural heritage as:

- Traditional, contemporary and living at the same time: no longer is cultural heritage stuck to the influences of inherited and biological ancestry, instead it is influenced by contemporary forces and practices. All cultural groups are welcome to take part.

- Inclusive: each cultural group might have its own intangible cultural heritage, but within those practices, there are similarities that tie one’s own culture to others.

- Representative: Intangible cultural heritage can easily be lost when the skills and knowledge that represent cultural heritage are forgotten. That’s why for the survival of the intangible cultural heritage of a group, it’s important to pass down the knowledge and skills of customs and traditions to the next generation.

- Community-based: Intangible cultural heritage can only survive when it’s recognized by the community or group that it belongs to.

Intangible Cultural Heritage in Orange City

Orange City is full of people with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and each of those people has their own intangible cultural heritage that they add to the community. Since Orange City historically has been a Dutch community and many people have ancestral ties to the Netherlands, our intangible cultural heritage has been passed down from those immigrant ancestors.

Specific knowledge and skills have been passed down from immigrant ancestors to more contemporary generations. These traditions and rituals are found throughout the year but are most recognizable during the annual Tulip Festival.

During the festival, we see symbols of Dutch heritage like poffertjes, stroopwafels, wooden shoes, Dutch costumes, and many more. These symbols are tangible, physical representations of Dutch heritage and culture. But thanks to intangible cultural heritage, we inherited these symbols and maintain them.

The knowledge of creating these objects is what has been passed down and shared in our community. That could be how to perfectly mix dry and wet ingredients to create the best poffertjes batter or knowing the best techniques when cooking them on the griddle. Or the skill of making shoes out of a solid piece of basswood. It can even be a Dutch children’s song that the Fietsen Zangers sing that was once sung by your grandmother to you as a child.

Language and Intangible Cultural Heritage

One of the most important examples of intangible cultural heritage is language. Only 100 years ago, Dutch was spoken regularly in homes, on the streets, and in church. It was common for Dutch immigrants in Orange City to not have to learn English because of the vast amount of Dutch language speakers residing in the area. Many times, the children of these immigrants grew up with Dutch being their first language, later having to learn English when they started attending school.

I remember a story that my great grandma, Jennie Vander Kooi, told. She grew up around Pella, Iowa in a first-generation immigrant family who spoke only Dutch in the home. It wasn’t until she went to school at the age of five that she was confronted with the realization that she couldn’t understand the English-speaking teacher. This caused great fear and confusion for her, but soon she picked up on America’s vernacular.

While my mother and her sister were young, Jennie would hold Dutch lessons for them in the afternoon at her house in Orange City. At family gatherings, she and her siblings would catch up in Dutch. When I was young and we would visit her in Denver, I remember her giving prayers in Dutch at the dinner table.

I’ve heard it said by native Dutch speakers that Dutch is the language you use when you want to speak from the heart.

Today, few native speakers remain, but still, Dutch words, phrases, and songs have been passed down. They are kept alive by the next generation who have adopted them into their contemporary vocabulary.

Though many members of the Dutch Heritage Boosters have never heard the term “intangible cultural heritage,” it represents the work of the organization. What it also does is help members of a cultural heritage group understand the origin of specific customs and traditions.

Intangible cultural heritage is within and all-around members of the community. It’s a living culture, meaning it survives and lies in our daily routines and practices. Next time we partake in a tradition, skill, or event that was passed down and has ties to our cultural community, take time to remember those who passed it down and the joining of the past and the present.

"UNESCO - What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?" Intangible Heritage Intangible Heritage - Culture Sector - UNESCO. Accessed June 3, 2023.

William Minnick is a recent graduate of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He holds a degree in history and public relations. Having grown up in Orange City, Minnick was immersed in community affairs, particularly in events promoting Dutch heritage through the Tulip Festival, and has taken a special interest in Dutch cultural and historical studies. Today, he is a contributing writer for the Dutch Heritage Booster's blog page and aids in the running of the organization's social media and marketing.


Jun 06, 2023

Great writing and information!


Jun 05, 2023

This is such a great post! Great writing, Will!

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