"First Nations" totem poles lined up in a store demonstrating the commodification of culture. (Photo credit to Solen Roth)

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Think Before You Appropriate: new guide advises on ethical use of indigenous cultural heritage

May 24, 2016
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By Diane Luckow

In the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company announced it would sell knock-offs of traditional hand-knit Cowichan sweaters as official 2010 Olympics merchandise.

Not surprisingly, the First Nations Cowichan people who still knit these sweaters using their traditional designs, protested. They had not been consulted, and weren’t offered any recompense.

This is just one example of indigenous cultural appropriation—taking an indigenous cultural element and using it for profit without consultation or permission.

Now, however, there is a new guidebook for designers and merchandisers. Think Before You Appropriate can help avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation, and reap the benefits of collaboration.

The guidebook, available online as a PDF, was created by members of the IPinCH Project—Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage, directed by SFU professor George Nicholas.

The international IPinCH Project team has spent the past eight years exploring the rights, values, and responsibilities of material culture, cultural knowledge and the practice of heritage research.

Now, says Nicholas, the group is applying what it has learned to help both non-indigenous and indigenous designers, product developers and policy-makers make more informed decisions about their own, and others’, heritage.

To date, IPinCH has posted more than 70 videos, as well as reports and resources, on its website that explore and explain issues related to cultural heritage and appropriation.

The new guidebook, says Nicholas, defines what cultural appropriation is and explains the risks of not asking permission and not working directly with indigenous owners.

The stakes are high, he says.

“Some product developers who have used indigenous heritage elements without permission have faced serious social media backlash, unwanted negative press, and have been forced to pull products from the market at great expense.”

For indigenous peoples, there are significant damages when others appropriate their heritage. These include losing access to their ancestral knowledge and property, losing control over the proper care of their heritage, losing their livelihood in some cases, and losing their cultural distinctiveness and authenticity.

“There’s a broad perception that indigenous heritage is in the public domain—that so-called “real Indians” don’t exist any more so their stories, designs, and culture are free for the taking,” says Nicholas, adding “these issues have a real impact on indigenous peoples’ lives.”

The IPinCH guide is intended not only to protect indigenous peoples but also to help businesses thrive through collaboration. Nicholas points out that creating more responsible and culturally aware products brings great benefits to developers and fosters innovative and mutually beneficial collaborations with indigenous artists and communities.

“Such progressive efforts counter stereotypes about indigenous peoples and contribute respectful and inspirational uses and interpretations of indigenous heritage.”