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Brown, M. F. (2004). Who Owns Native Culture? Harvard University Press. Chapters 3 & 4

October 9, 2010

Who Owns Native Culture? is about a lot of issues – cultural ownership, identity, negotiation, cultural economics, (cultural) property rights, Native cultures, power struggles, and the appropriation of minority cultures by dominant groups, just to name a few. I found Brown’s discussion to be engaging for the most part, although I thought his examples were rather haphazard and too many to keep track of.

Here’s a brief outline of my section of the book (Chapters 3 and 4):

Chapter 3: Sign Wars

This chapter focused on the controversy around the unauthorized and often derogatory use of tribal insignia on products and commercials. Brown argues that most of the debate on this matter has centered around three key issues:

  1. How is tribal insignia defined?
  2. Should the protection for tribal insignia and names be retroactive, and if so, what about companies that had already built brand value and goodwill worth millions based on tribal insignia/names?
  3. The relationship between US trademark policies and global business practices

The debate is about whether Indian words of significant social, cultural, and religious meaning should be excluded from commercial use. The matter is more complicated than one would think because there is no consensus even among Native tribes as to what constitutes a religious word/symbol and what would be deemed as commercial use! It has recently also been suggested that US trademark and copyright laws be altered so that they protect even indigenous art styles against unauthorized borrowing, and not just tribal words and symbols that have cultural significance.

The problem, as per Brown, is not corporate greed when it comes to the use of tribal words, signs, and, images, but the fact that technology now allows for unrestricted use and reproduction of these signs – an ability that undermines “traditional authority and the authority of tradition itself.” The solution, according to Brown, is “the implementation of public policies that honor indigenous sensibilities without violating basic freedoms.”

Chapter 4: Ethnobotany Blues

First, what on earth is ethnobotany and what does an ethnobotanist do? I did not know the answer to either question, but Brown (thankfully) defines the terms for us! Ethnobotany deals with the study of indigenous medicinal plants and the way in which these plants are used by native groups for the promotion of health, wellbeing, and longevity. Ethnobotanists study indigenous people and their medicinal practices in order to preserve valuable native knowledge about diseases and remedies.

Unfortunately, technological changes and the fiercely competitive Big Pharma race to come up with path breaking cures diseases like for cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS have led to the unfair commercialization of Native groups’ botanical assets. In other words, pharmaceutical companies are reaping HUGE profits by exploiting the traditional medicinal expertise of indigenous groups, which do not benefit in any way from these endeavors. All the while, Big Pharma CEOs are earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year in salaries and bonuses for engaging in such “biopiracy” and forceful “botanical borrowing”.

Brown argues (in what seems to be an agreement with Lessig’s contention) that while patents and copyrights were instituted to encourage innovation, they’re actually having quite the reverse effect because original research is being possessively guarded in the hopes of revenues worth billions. So, no more free exchange of ideas!

Brown offers dozens of examples to establish the incredibly complex web of bioprospecting, procedural bureaucracy, logistical challenges, ethical dilemmas, cutthroat competition in pharmaceutical research, and shareholder profits. He then says that it is equally challenging to determine what “fair compensation” for indigenous peoples should be, if one of their medicinal plants helps cure a deadly disease. Who should be compensated? The whole tribe? Parts of the tribe? A few individuals? Along what geographical lines? So what happens when a researcher finds that a plant native to an indigenous group in India (but later naturalized all over Asia) has properties that can help cure HIV/AIDS? Who gets compensated, and how? Clearly, there is no ‘right’ answer when it comes to this. 😦

My Thoughts

What I particularly appreciated about Brown’s exposition is that he doesn’t simply essentialize the problems pertaining to cultural appropriation, but he also offers recommendations for how matters of such complexity and dilemma can be negotiated. Brown offers several middle-path solutions and argues that rigid rules about cultural ownership are not only unrealistic but also harmful – for both, the indigenous as well as the dominant groups.

Instead, Brown believes in politically negotiated solutions and argues that when any group or culture reserves exclusive rights to their artifacts (abstract or concrete), they ignore the ethos of sharing, exchange, assimilation, and symbiosis upon which human civilization is based. The middle-path solutions and guidelines for dealing with cultural ownership that Brown outlines are well-meaning and even reasonable. The question is, reasonable for whom? I for one, am rather distrustful of ‘consensus’ solutions – not only because I think ‘true’ consensus is utopian, but also because most consensus solutions tend to sustain the same power imbalances that  necessitated a consensus solution in the first place! So when Brown talks about “politically negotiated solutions”, some groups will invariably be better served by these solutions than others, and usually it is the weaker, non-mainstream group that ends up getting the short end of the stick. By means of an example, let’s consider the Devils Tower controversy. Historically disadvantaged indigenous groups are extremely sensitive (and rightfully so) about the commercial exploitation of their culture. They also take offense (again, legitimately so) when their cultural totems are treated disrespectfully. In the case of Devils Tower, when Lakota, Cheyenne, and Shoshone tribes objected that mountain climbers were desecrating a monument that had deep spiritual significance for them, authorities tried to achieve a middle path by instructing tourists to be respectful, limiting the use of climbing hardware, enforcing seasonal closures, and proposing a voluntary moratorium – so that Native American ritual practices were not disrupted by climbers. These solutions were proposed in the Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP) but I wonder if local tribes were represented in the committee that proposed and implemented these solutions. If they were, why would one Indian ask Park Service representatives: “Why must the mountain be defined by your rules?

Implications of Brown’s arguments and class discussion topics:

  1. The protection of cultural heritage is necessary but also hazardous and challenging.
  2. There is a significant amount of risk involved in appropriating the music, rituals, art, and botanical resources/knowledge of cultural traditions, but protecting native heritage is a grey area with no perfect ‘solution’ because of the moral predicaments involved.
  3. Cultural heritage is not something that can be patented or copyrighted. But at the same time, can it be considered the personal property of the cultural group in question?
  4. If indigenous people are given group ownership rights over their cultural artifacts, what does that mean for the public domain?
  5. Brown seems to arguing for plea for social justice, civil flexibility, and good ol’ common sense ala Lessig. He suggests the way we think of culture today has drastically changed – it’s no longer something that’s completely abstract, because culture has been crystallized into tangible things (physical objects as well as cultural elements such as folk tales, native art, music, traditional medicine, native plant crops, religious rituals and so on) that have been borrowed (and subsequently appropriated) by dominant mainstream cultures. The solution lies in being respectful, courteous, and sensitive when using these cultural artifacts in our day-to-day activities. But how does one ensure this? Can it be ensured at all?
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. allitravis permalink*
    October 10, 2010 6:33 pm

    I am excited to talk about your chapters in class tomorrow, as I think they bring up some really interesting questions!

    I wanted to comment on your discussion of who should be recognized/rewarded for the products of indigenous peoples? As you mentioned, Natives are not receiving compensation for some of their botanical assets. If they were to receive compensation, would the tribe receive the money? Specific individuals? Families?

    This same issue was discussed in Chapter 2, which discusses a case regarding indigenous art. Does the artist get credit (and thus compensation) for their production? Or did the tribe itself play a significant role in producing the art (that was a depiction of their ‘culture’) therefore holding rights to royalties? It is such a complex, and interesting subject. I know that tribal cultures work much differently than the American population in general, which obviously would recognize the one artist for his or her efforts. However, consider corporate culture. Many times an individual’s ideas are used by the company they work for and end up making them a lot of money! Of course, they have signed contracts that give the company title to any works they produce, but we can think of tribal cultures as working the same way…everyone representing one ‘unit’ together. Interesting stuff!

  2. October 10, 2010 8:30 pm

    Yes! Interesting indeed. I too, enjoyed reading your conversations and am swimming in the tryst of all of this complexity!!

    I’m curious if anybody has read any of Vandana Shiva’s work. He cites her in the last chapter, but doesn’t talk in detail about her work against corporations like Monsanto and Coke. If not, I suggest it. It’s a beautiful book, powerful, and extremely convincing…

  3. priyanka30 permalink*
    October 11, 2010 10:31 pm

    i am familiar with some of Vandana Shiva’s work in ecofeminism in India and I personally think the lady is a genius! 🙂 which work are you referring to, Mary?

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