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October 7, 2010

Who Owns Native Culture is a book about the complex relationship between indigenous tribal societies and the nations in which they find themselves citizens. In the opening chapter, author Michael Brown centers his discussion on the concept of a group’s right to ‘cultural privacy’ versus public demand, using the Hopi Indians as his prime example. Back in the late 1800s, Reverend Heinrich R. Voth, a Mennonite missionary, settled in a Hopi village with the intentions of gaining an in-depth understanding of the Hopi religion to help in his own evangelistic attempts in spreading Christianity. However, this intense interest in the Hopi religion eventually became his principal means of financial support when he began receiving money by reproducing major displays of Hopi culture for museums and tourist attractions. It didn’t take long for the Hopi community to begin harboring feelings of resentment towards Voth and the publishing of their sacred religious rituals for the world to see.

Voth claims to have been welcomed with open arms by the priests and Hopi community, who eagerly shared their religious history with him. In contrast, Hopi citizens claim that he would force his way into religious ceremonies, and when the natives would try to force him out, he would kick them with the solid heels of his shoes (Brown 13). The Hopi have made it clear that they wanted no involvement with Voth’s attempts to share their religious traditions with the world.

The main argument between Voth and the Hopis (which Brown goes on to reveal is a worldwide concern of many cultural groups) is about the right of public knowledge and participation in culture:

“Hopi anxiety about use of their traditional images in the world beyond their isolated mesas is a local  expression of global concern about the disposition of cultural heritage. This uneasiness is by no                means limited to the indigenous communities; people in the cultural majority worry about it too.” (Brown 15)

Protecting ones’ culture boils down to the rights of privacy. Privacy is, by definition, a personal right; nevertheless, there are situations where privacy extends to groups (ex:attorney-client, priest-parishioner confidentiality agreements). “The right to associate with others in confidence, the right to privacy in one’s associations- assures the success and integrity of the group purpose.” (29) When young men and women participate in secret rites of passage, they return from seclusion in a new light – they see themselves differently, and the community sees them differently. Secrecy generates social hierarchy distinctions between those who know and those who don’t. Within societies (like Native American cultures) that lack significant economic stratification, those social rankings fostered by ritual secrecy may determine patterns of leadership. Revealing that secrecy threatens patterns of political and religious life (30).

The main point Brown is trying to convey to the reader regarding ‘cultural privacy’ is to help them understand that using native symbols, imitating rituals, taking works without permission, etc. all directly interferes with the daily culture and function of these indigenous communities, and can sometimes have damaging effects on them. Brown believes in giving these indigenous groups within the larger society their own space in which they can maintain their sense of community and continue to reproduce and live life as they know it. It might even be worthwhile to consider recognizing legal rights for native communities, such as the legal rights to privacy that exist for government organizations or in doctor-patient relationships. However, this creates the risk of other groups, not considered ‘normal’ parts of society, to claim their own entitlement to privacy.

Some argue, however, that keeping ‘cultural’ information private is unrealistic.  Private information is bound to circulate in the form of gossip or, more prevalently, on-line.

“The web…raises questions about whether cultural privacy can be comprehensively enforced even if it were to be universally recognized.” (Brown 36)

With the introduction of the internet, its anything really ‘private’ any more?


What would a code of cultural privacy look like, and how would it be implemented?

In modern society, is it rational to believe we can establish feasible “rights to cultural privacy”?

Chapter two of Brown’s book dives into issues of intellectual property and copyrights in relation to the protection of native images, stories and symbols from use by ‘non-natives’. Brown uses a 1976 lawsuit between an Australian aboriginal artist (Johny Bulun Bulun) and a Brisbane textile company to dive into this intricate topic and highlight the differences between indigenous views and the western legal system. The case boiled down to whether or not Bulan Bulan’s tribe had any sort of fiduciary rights in his art. Bulan Bulan argued that his community (who had no contribution in the actual painting of the art itself) had rights to the artwork because religious authorities of the tribe had licensed Bulan Bulan to produce these religious images.  The judge eventually ruled that only the artist was the copyright holder and could make claims for copyright infringement. However, the judge did consent that if an artist did not make claims themselves against copyright infringment, the tribe could go on to pursue justice for the artist, due to the fact that abuse of their religious imagery could have negative effects on the tribe.

As Brown tries to emphasize, the textile manufacturer was unaware of how destructive his (as I’m sure he felt, harmless) reproduction of native art (in a broader sense, culture) would be on the indigenous peoples.  While many non-natives might think they are showing respect to indigenous tribes by using their images, in reality, it could be very hurtful.  In the multicultural society we live in today, many individuals aren’t always as sensitive as Brown believes they should be. By no means is he advocating legalistic forms of cultural heritage protection, but instead, believes that people in general need to become more educated and aware of the cultural implications of their actions.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. priyanka30 permalink*
    October 10, 2010 4:37 pm

    totally agree with your last few lines, Alli. I think all of Brown’s “negotiated” solutions are actually an appeal for everyone to become more educated about other parts of the world and other cultures, so that thee’s an overall ethos of sensitivity, dignity, and respect.

  2. October 10, 2010 8:35 pm

    Your questions are good, and demonstrate the issues from multiple perspectives over what “privacy” even is… So, mind boggling, I have no idea as to any finite answer to your first question.

    I’m not sure it’s rational to believe, but maybe it’s necessary to believe that we must establish something, but maybe not something that is too narrow? I’m going to have to go with Brown’s discussion in his last chapter, where he advocates for the more local, communitive domain as the “state”… just because we are so diverse, and if we do believe in the idea of a “pluriverse” then local might be the only option? I have no idea…

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