“As archeologists we’re always accused of being stuck in the past, but what we’re doing is really relevant because it tells us too that our system can break down as easily as those systems in the past.” Eldon Yellowhorn

First Nations, Research

Eldon Yellowhorn on Copylefting Cultural Heritage, and the Possibilities of Historical Archeology

January 26, 2015

When you ask Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn what he’s working on, he excitedly describes researching the cultural history and ongoing adaptation of the powwow in his home community of the Piikani First Nations. “The first powwow in Canada was on my reserve back in 1954. It was an obscure little community festival. But then people started coming. People liked what they saw. They started to take it home to their communities. And in each version, as they adapted it, they added their own little flare.”

As a key member of the SFU-based initiative Intellectual Property issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH), Yellowhorn has been looking at vehicles like copyright, logos, trademark, trade secrets, and patents in relation to the cultural tradition of the powwow. How to best protect cultural heritage and traditional knowledge is currently a key concern of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).  Yellowhorn notes, “the World Intellectual Property Organization recognizes traditional knowledge as a form of proprietary interest” and, as IPinCH Project Director and SFU Archeology Professor George Nicholas writes in a piece for WIPO, “traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions do not fully qualify for protection under the intellectual property system as it exists today.”  Yellowhorn says that full recognition has potential: for example, it is meant to “prevent a company from going into a community and finding a traditional remedy that everybody swears by, isolating the active ingredient, and claiming ownership over that.” However, Yellowhorn explains that the ever-adapting practice of the powwow is “not about hoarding traditional knowledge, it’s about putting it out there [and] it’s been the most successful cultural export from the plains.” 

Some striking examples of adaptation in the powwow that Yellowhorn has looked at so far are such components as the costumes or traditional dances performed.  “Early costumes, when you talk to people, they describe how they were quite plain in color.  Today they’re very ornate and flamboyant with lots of garish colours like neon pink or green.” He notes that in the earlier days of the powwow, it was primarily men who danced and sang. While there were couples dances, he says women would more often be on the perimeter and be invited into the dance circle as part of the round dance: “The round dance originally was a women’s dance but over time it became more general or generic.  And now it’s kind of a staple.”

A similar staple of the powwow that has changed drastically is the women’s jingle dress and the women’s fancy dance. Yellowhorn describes the evolution of the “women’s jingle dress” costume: “while earlier versions might usually have featured small beads or elk teeth, they were very quiet.  And they didn’t make a lot of noise. But the jingle dress now uses many cones made out of tincans that are sewn into the dress one beside the other. So when they walk they dangle and they make quite a loud sound.”  The jingle dress, he says, holds special significance: “the women’s jingle dress developed out of a dream. A woman had a dream and the dress was known to be a medicine dress for her. So this is why oftentimes traditional knowledge is considered quasi-sacred because it often originates in dreams.”  He notes that the process of learning the tradition and adapting it starts young, as witnessed when young girls come to the powwows, are watching the older girls, copying their moves and then practicing their own moves. These kinds of examples show, for Yellowhorn, how traditions and traditional knowledge evolves. “When I think about my own interest in the powwow, I ask myself: ‘Who can patent that? How do you copyright or trademark that?’ ”

And as the preview for Yellowhorn’s new documentary Powwow: Copylefting Cultural Tradition, demonstrates, Yellowhorn is also looking towards the online community, open source software, and a process called copylefting to explore these questions. Copylefting, he explains, proceeds from the opposite idea of copyrighting: “Linux was a system that, when it went out there, the creators said, ‘here’s an operating system you can use. Modify it as you will.’ And this is similar to how Wikipedia is an open source platform that is out there: People can add to it; people communally work on articles and adjust entries. I thought this copyleft movement was a more appropriate model for talking about the powwow.”

Yellowhorn’s previous documentary, Digging up the Rez: Piikani Historical Archeology, is based on fieldwork he led on several Piikani First Nation excavation sites outside Brocket, Alberta. In his article “Just Methods, No Madness: Historical Archaeology on the Piikani First Nation,” recently published in Ethics and Archeological Praxis (Springer Press 2015), Yellowhorn reflects critically on this past fieldwork and explains how his ancestors who had settled on the reserve lands in 1880 “never had a chance to record their own story for themselves,” how the impetus to pursue the fieldwork was to find an “alternative point of departure for Piikani studies that did not depend solely on the ethnographic present” (250).

Indeed, as he further writes, the excavations undertaken by himself and his team (comprised of then-SFU-graduate students Sandie Dielissen, Simon Solomon, and Kristina Hannis) revealed that the Piikani were not “isolated from the society growing around them,” as had been depicted in the ethnographic record; rather, they engaged and adapted to the modern world and took on a variety of “adjustments to their culture when needed” including architecture, organization of domestic space, and gardening techniques (251).  One striking example of this adaptation, described in Yellowhorn’s article and visualized in Digging up the Rez, is the revelation that Piikani households preserved some of the domestic geography of tipi despite having transitioned from circular dwellings to four-walled constructions. In particular, excavations at the Yellowhorn homestead revealed that the stove’s position constructed in the centre of the log cabin corresponded to the hearth in the centre of a lodge dwelling. 

These kinds of revelations brought about through pursuing historical archeology leave Yellowhorn hopeful about the future of his field. Decolonization in research and research methodologies is an important conversation happening presently in academic communities, yet Yellowhorn is hesitant to adopt the approach himself:  “The methods are just there, you know? As archeologists when we start, the most basic tools are a trowel and a shovel. How do you decolonize a trowel and shovel?”

Rather, he calls the ethics of archeology an “evolving situation” where one has to be savvy when appropriating the methods: “when Franz Boaz was doing work, grave-robbing was an accepted method but not anymore. The methods themselves, whether it is a camera or recording equipment, we should be appropriating these methods to tell our story. Historical archeology and even archeology is all about storytelling. These days, climate change is something everyone wants to know about. So you can take the chronology of tree rings or look at sediment in archeological digs to tell that story. We could go to Meso-America and see pyramids in the jungle that also tell a story about how people have reached a crisis brought about by climate. What we can learn from that is that we are not immune. All these civilizations thought of themselves as being at the apex of their humanity, and ultimately their confidence was misplaced because they had too much invested in keeping things the way things are.”


| Read more about Dr. Yellowhorn on p. 7 of the Aboriginal Peoples edition of SFU News... |