Today, Kihnu has only 400 inhabitants, a demographic decline compared to the 1,200 before WWII and the 700 in the Soviet period between 1944 and 1991.
In the Gulf of Riga, men lived in difficult icy conditions and passed on the rules of seal hunting from father to son. Also, many men served in the merchant navy, leaving for several months to the North Sea. As a result, Kihnu women have governed the affairs of the community since the middle of the 19th century, thereby becoming the guardians of the island. They have performed all the tasks, even those traditionally reserved to men: work in the fields, harvests, livestock, education of children and the transmission of traditions. In 2003, UNESCO classified the cultural practices of Kihnu as an intangible heritage of humanity. This encouraged and empowered the women of the island to preserve the crafts, the local dialect, and the songs and dances. All these customs have almost disappeared due to modernization and globalization.
Women recognize their important decision-making role, but their men are essential to them. “Men's wages provide our economic base, because in Kihnu, it is the sea that gives life. The island earns most of its income from fishing and tourism”. However, some residents of the island fear their culture will be affected by the influx of tourists and do not perceive the image of the "island of women" very positively.
If men are now more present on the island, their mothers, their wives or their daughters continue to take charge of the education, culture, community life, and especially the crafts, thereby preserving their traditions.
Geographical isolation, a sense of community and attachment to customs have enabled the inhabitants of this 16.4 km2 island to keep their culture and customs unaltered over the centuries.
She is called Kihnu Virve, named after the island where she was born. Virve Köster, 90 years-old, is one of Estonia's best-known singers, frequently featured on national television shows and at concerts. She performs all the melodies by heart, a hundred in total.
Kihnu was occupied by the Soviet Union along with the rest of Estonia. Much was prohibited during the occupation, however the local language and culture were freely practiced on the island.
Mare Mätas rarely rides on her military sidecar recovered from the Soviets. For a long time, this was the only form of transportation on the island. Today virtually everyone has replaced it for a car and takes it out mainly for tourist events.
Mare Mätas, a key figure on the island, is the head of the Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation and the NGO Kihnu Living Heritage. She has been a strong advocate of Kihnu's interests in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, but also abroad. She fought for this culture to be recognized as an intangible heritage of UNESCO. Today, she keeps preserving this cultural heritage and argues in favor of the increase of fishing quotas, considering it represents a significant economic gain for the island.
Each woman has in her wedding trousseau a collection of traditional woolen skirts. They are selected according to tradition and events: the darkest with black or blue stripes are reserved for sad days such as mourning, for example, the most vivid for everyday life and for various celebrations.
Folk dances and songs are part of their pride and heritage. From children to grandmothers, all generations perpetuate this tradition.
Weaving and knitting are part of Kihnu traditions, and are as important as the songs, dances and local dialect.
Born and raised in Tallinn, Maria decided to study anthropology and chose the traditions of Kihnu as her theme for her thesis. A way for her to reconnect with her own origins on the maternal side. Initially she was just passing through but now, after six years, she can't imagine returning to the capital, although sometimes, especially in winter, the days can be long and harsh.
The priest comes to the island once a month for Mass and for special occasions such as a baptism, a wedding ... Here the little girl is baptized in the only Lutheran Orthodox Church on the island.
More and more young people are leaving the island to study on the mainland or abroad, but also to explore other horizons. The lack of jobs does not help. Fishing, agriculture and crafts, the essential sectors of the island, are in a dismal state.
The men practiced mainly fishing but also an ancestral practice which is an integral part of Kihnu’s culture, seal hunt. At the end of the 20th century, due to the decline of the seal population in the Baltic Sea, hunting was prohibited and the species protected. Thanks to these measures the seal population has grown and is no longer threatened with extinction. Today it is doing so well that hunting is again permitted in small numbers.
Some of the most important activities on the island are dancing, singing and playing the violin, accordion or guitar. Traditions hold out despite the young people’s intent to leave. Women are the ones who revive the island’s customs.