Cultural Commodification Symposium & Workshop a Great Success

May 16, 2013

By Brian Egan

In early May, an eclectic group of scholars, cultural practitioners, and community representatives came together on the grounds of the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus to discuss concerns about the commodification of Indigenous cultural heritage. 

Initiated by Solen Roth, co-chair of IPinCH’s Commodification of the Past Working Group, and sponsored by IPinCH and the Liu Institute for Global Issues, the gathering included a one-day public symposium followed by two days of intensive dialogue among some two-dozen individuals from across the globe, all of whom are deeply engaged with questions of cultural commodification. 


The broad objective of the event was to allow for a nuanced exploration of commodification processes, seeking to better understand how these can be both harmful and beneficial, and to identify tools and strategies that Indigenous communities and scholars can use to deal with commodification concerns and opportunities.




The public symposium on “Cultural Commodification, Indigenous Peoples, and Self-Determination” drew approximately 100 people to hear nine presentations from scholars and community representatives. After an opening welcome from Musqueam elder Victor Guerin and introductory remarks by IPinCH Director George Nicholas, symposium speakers addressed three broad themes related to commodification. In the first thematic session, focused on better understanding processes of commodification, speakers explored the ‘who, what, why, and how’ of commodification. Susan Rowley of the UBC Museum of Anthropology gave an engaging talk on the case of ‘Ookpik’, an Inuit owl doll marketed by the Canadian government in the 1960s. IPinCH ethnographer Alexis Bunten explored the limits of cultural commodification, drawing on Marxian ideas about ‘commodities’ and referencing a wide range of examples (including the commodification of used women’s underwear!). IPinCH Fellow Nicole Aylwin rounded out this session by looking at how pan-African cultural policies have led to the commodification of ‘traditional’ African art forms.

In the second session, symposium speakers examined the framing of cultural commodification, paying particular attention to the use of label, marks, licenses, and appellations to indicate the origin, authenticity, and appropriateness of cultural products. York University’s Rosemary Coombe contributed a paper, delivered by Nicole Aylwin, providing an overview of the role of marks in communicating community values and norms in the marketplace. Kim Christen of Washington State University presented an overview of ‘Local Contexts’, an innovative traditional knowledge licenses and labels initiative (supported by IPinCH and WIPO) designed to address Indigenous community needs and concerns related to commodification. Deidre Brown, a specialist in Maori design at the University of Auckland, made the crucial point that appropriation has always been central to the work of artists and designers and that it is important to understand when appropriation is appropriate or inappropriate.


The final symposium session was dedicated to the exploration of Indigenous responses to appropriation through processes of negotiation, protection, and care. Shannon Martin, Director of the Ziibiwing Centre of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, spoke of the difficult negotiations between the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, the Michigan Archaeological Society, and the state Department of Natural Resources over the use, ownership, and protection of the Sanilac Petroglyphs. Inuit lawyer Violet Ford shared examples of the misuse of important Inuit cultural symbols, such as the inukshuk, and how these can be resisted. Finally, Barrister and Indigenous rights specialist Maui Solomon gave an overview of the contemporary struggle to protect Maori and Moriori tangible and intangible cultural property in Aotearoa (New Zealand). 

These wide-ranging presentations provided the raw material for a dynamic set of discussions in the follow up workshop. The three symposium themes carried over into the workshop, with the first day devoted to further understanding of the risks and benefits of commodification and of how Indigenous communities can negotiate commodification processes. The second day of the workshop featured a review of efforts to negotiate the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage at the global level, through the World Intellectual Property Organization, and a more in-depth examination of the utility of labels and trademarks in addressing commodification concerns and opportunities.


On the final afternoon, participants broke into four groups to develop a set of concrete outcomes from the workshop. This included work on public education and awareness around the nature and impacts of commodification, with a particular focus on reaching out to those who design, produce, and consume products derived from Indigenous cultural heritage. A second area of follow-up work is in curriculum development, including resources for students and instructors at all levels. A third group focused on what can be done at the community level, concluding that a useful outcome would be an outreach strategy package that would be adaptable to community needs; this package would provide tools to help communities better understand the full range of commodification issues and also to help educate others about the impacts of commodification on Indigenous communities. Finally, a number of participants agreed to begin working on a declaration that would speak to the larger issues discussed at the symposium and workshop.

Over the next few months we will be sharing more outcomes from this gathering, including recordings of the symposium talks. For more information about any aspect of this event, please contact IPinCH Coordinator Brian Egan at

Photographs by Kelly Bannister, Alexis Bunten, Kristen Dobbin & George Nicholas

Full list of workshop participants:

·     Merle Alexander, Bull Housser & Tupper LLP.

·     Nicole Aylwin, York University.

·     Kelly Bannister, University of Victoria. 

·     Catherine Bell University of Alberta.

·     Deidre Brown, University of Auckland.

·     Alexis Bunten, IPinCH.

·     Kimberly Christen, Washington State University.

·     Rosemary Coombe, York University. 

·     Mique’l Icesis Dangeli, University of British Columbia.

·     Torsten Diesel, Inuit Heritage Trust.

·     Kristen Dobbin, IPinCH.

·     Brian Egan, IPinCH.

·     Violet Ford, University of Lapland. 

·     Victor Guerin, Musqueam First Nation.

·     Robin Gray, University of Massachussets – Amherst.

·     Preston Hardison, Tulalip Tribes.

·     Ralph Kownak, Inuit Heritage Trust.

·     Jennifer Kramer, University of British Columbia.

·     Karolina Kuprecht, University of Lucerne.

·     Shannon Martin, Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways.

·     Lena Mortensen, University of Toronto.

·     George Nicholas, Simon Fraser University.

·     Darren O’Toole, University of Ottawa.

·     Solen Roth, University of British Columbia.

·     Susan Rowley, University of British Columbia.

·     David Schaepe, Stó:lõ Research and Resource Management Centre.

·     Maui Solomon, Hokotehi Moriori Trust. 

·     Laura Skorodenski, University of Alberta.

·     Susan Thorpe, Hokotehi Moriori Trust.

·     Alexa Walker, IPinCH.

·     Jordan Wilson, University of British Columbia.

·     Rico Worl, Sealaska Heritage Institute.