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Decolonizing and Decommodifying Archaeology


Decolonizing and Decommodifying Archaeology


Decolonizing and Decommodifying Archaeology

The collaborative IPinch project explores the rights, values, and responsibilities of material culture, cultural knowledge, and the practice of heritage research.

The intellectual property of individuals and communities is an integral part of their identity, worldview, and heritage. One of Canada’s greatest challenges is to develop strategies to safeguard the cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples, from material artifacts such as art objects and garments, to ephemeral ideas embedded in music and oral histories. Whether intentional or not, the inappropriate use of cultural heritage by those who do not fully understand and appreciate its cultural, economic, and spiritual value is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Since 2008, an international team led by SFU archaeology professor George Nicholas­ has worked to address these underexplored issues. The Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) Project comprises a “dream team” of over 50 socially committed experts in anthropology, archaeology, law, ethics, heritage and museum studies, and more. Together, they are tackling the far-reaching theoretical, ethical, and practical implications of borrowing and adopting elements from other cultures.

Nicholas has worked with indigenous communities in B.C. for over twenty-five years and was involved in developing the premier Indigenous Archaeology program in Canada at SFU’s former Kamloops campus. It became clear to him very early on that archaeology scholars needed to take a backseat to those who had the lived experience and cultural background to make contributions to the subject of study. “If we look at the world only through a Western lens, we learn more about ourselves than we do about other ways of being, doing, and thinking,” says Nicholas.

In the early 2000s, his work in indigenous archaeology led to opportunities to meet with, and learn from, Indigenous communities in North America and Australia. Here, he witnessed some of the daunting challenges Indigenous peoples face in protecting their heritage and gained important insights into different cultural values and worldviews.

In 2004, Nicholas and colleague Kelly Bannister wrote a seminal article titled “Copyrighting the Past?” which explored emerging issues relating to intellectual property in archaeology and related fields. The article caught the attention of Julie Hollowell, a cultural anthropologist from Indiana University. She wanted to organize a symposium on the topic, however, the three soon realized that a much larger, more sustained effort was needed.   

By 2008, the trio had secured $2.5 million in funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to launch a global research effort exploring themes such as cultural tourism, ethics in indigenous research, and bioarchaeology (the study of human remains on archaeological sites). The SFU-led initiative earned SSHRC’s first Partnership Impact Award in 2013 for its unprecedented use of a methodology that facilitates indigenous community partners driving the research process. IPinCH funded fifteen community-based initiatives in Australia, Canada, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand, and the United States, working with indigenous groups such as the Sto:lo, Inuvialuit, Penobscot, the Ainu, Hopi, and Moriori.

Thanks to its massive effort, IPinCH has played a leading role in shaping intellectual and public discourse around issues of intellectual property and cultural heritage. It has become an important hub for research, knowledge and resources on the topic for archaeologists, institutions, communities, scholars and policy makers around the world.

Reflecting on what he has learned from the endeavor, Nicholas says, “It is so important to take great care when conducting research on Indigenous people’s heritage and to work as if someone’s life is on the line…because in a manner of speaking, it is.”


Dr. George Nicholas is professor of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada. From 1991 to 2005, he developed and directed SFU’s internationally known Indigenous Archaeology Program in Kamloops, BC. He has worked closely with the Secwepemc and other First Nations in Canada, the United States, and Australia. His research focuses on intellectual property rights and archaeology, Indigenous archaeology, the archaeology and human ecology of wetlands, hunter-gatherers past and present, and archaeological theory, all of which he has published widely on. He is past editor of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (2000–2007) and co-editor (with Julie Hollowell) of the World Archaeological Congress’ Research Handbooks in Archaeology series (Left Coast Press). Nicholas is also an adjunct faculty member at Flinders University in South Australia.

Q & A with George Nicholas

What motivates you as a researcher? 

I am motivated by a deep desire to learn new things and to create new knowledge about people’s lives based on the archaeological record, but also to learn from and protect my own and other peoples’ heritage. No less important has been a wish to put my academic experiences to use by making a real difference in peoples’ lives. The IPinCH Project has worked for almost a decade to identify and address issues related to cultural appropriation and to offer ways to respectfully engage with Indigenous heritage. One example of this is our recent downloadable booklet “Think Before You Appropriate: A Guide for Creators and Designers” (free on our website), which we initiated to help product developers and consumers make more informed decisions about the use of Indigenous heritage. 

How does your research make an impact on our lives? 

For the past 25 years I have worked with and for Indigenous groups worldwide as an educator, facilitator, and archaeologist. With the Indigenous Archaeology program that I developed on SFU’s Kamloops campus, my goal was to provide First Nations students with a set of tools and ideas derived from the discipline of archaeology that they could adapt to meet their own needs, and to reflect their own worldviews and values. It wasn’t so much about offering them my version of archaeology, but equipping them with the understanding that archaeology can be flexible and multi-faceted, and that this doesn’t compromise the integrity of the discipline.

I also want to ensure that my research is not only benefitting other scholars, but also has value to those whose heritage it reflects. I often ask “So what?” in evaluating a project or report—“How does this work contribute to the lives of those I’ve collaborated with?”

How important is collaboration in advancing research? 

For research involving other people’s heritage sites, collaboration is absolutely essential. I interpret “collaboration” to mean full and equal decision-making and benefit sharing in a project. Heritage is not just what is put in museum, but reflects values, beliefs, objects, and places, that permeate people’s lives and are essential to their identity, history, and wellbeing today.