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The west’s ongoing theft of indigenous knowledge

On August 9, International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the UN Secretary-General called for a recognition of the intellectual property rights of indigenous communities
Paul Willis
15 August 2011

This week the United Nations marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples with a message from Ban Ki-moon. The UN chief called on governments to do more to recognize the right of indigenous communities to control their intellectual property. He said too often the cultural contributions of native groups had been “exploited and commercialized, with little or no recognition.” It was a bold statement from the UN head and one worth reflecting on.

Montreal First Peoples Festival Native American dancer, photos Paul Willis

I was in Montreal this week to attend the First Peoples Festival, a ten-day celebration that brings together indigenous artists, musicians and filmmakers from around the world. The ten-day long festival was a great showcase for the phenomenal creativity present in contemporary indigenous communities. Among the highlights was a rapper from the Abitibiwinni First Nation in Canada and the first independent feature film to come out of Greenland.

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Samian, the Native American rapper performing on stage at the festival

But a short slide back in history reveals how the ingenuity of native peoples has both shaped our world in ways few of us are conscious of and how the originators of this knowledge have most often been sidelined in the name of profit. Canadians, for example, might have guessed that canoes and toboggans come from their natives but how many knew that they had the first people to thank for the game of Lacrosse and for maple syrup? Ever since first contact westerners have stolen from the designs, intellectual property and traditional knowledge of indigenous communities, sometimes reaping vast wealth for themselves into the bargain.

Early explorers learned about tobacco, for example, through the shamanic rituals of American native tribes, later developing milder strains and turning it into a hugely profitable cash crop. In recent times the phenomenon has continued thanks in large part to international patent laws that have allowed western companies, particularly American, to steal indigenous plant knowledge and pass it off as their own – a practice that critics have labelled biopiracy. In 1999, for example, American authorities granted a patent to Cromak Research Inc., based in New Jersey, to exploit the anti-diabetic properties of three Indian plants even though their use in the control of diabetes was already common practice in India. In Brazil too large multinational corporations have already patented more than half the known plant species (Brazil is estimated to have around 55,000 species of flora, a fifth of the world's total). 

Chris Bose, Native American artist, at Montreal's Place des Arts

The plunder of native art has been equally rapacious. Even a giant of 20th century art like Pablo Picasso is not above the fray. The great modernist has been accused of appropriating African tribal art in his work without giving full credit to where it came from. These days native art appears on everything from tattoos to surfboards, most often divorced from its historical meaning.

Suzan Shown Harjo, an expert in American Indian federal laws, has spent forty years helping protect native sovereignty in the arts, culture and human rights: “They’ve been raided and pillaged in the same way by invaders of our lands,” Harjo, who has helped develop at least three pieces of pro-Native American legislation that have since become law, told the Indian Country Today newspaper. “We are fighting the same kind of mentality and people when we try to protect our traditions, culture, knowledge and cultural patrimony.”

Chris Bose, a filmmaker from British Columbia appearing at the First Peoples Festival, has found his own way of fighting back against the cultural theft, in turn stealing icons from the west and fusing them with his native art. The central image of his latest film Jesus Coyote, a rough-edged short that mixes 1930s footage of the reservations with a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack, is a Christ with a coyote’s head. (Coyote’s are significant in the mythology of Bose’s Secwepemc tribe as the creators of land and sky).

 “Don’t get me wrong Jesus seemed like a cool guy,” says Bose. “But we’ve had so much stolen from us over the years it makes your head spin thinking about it. And the fact is being born native means being born an activist.”

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