Nov. 14, 2007

Stealing souls: Native leaders address cultural plundering

Imagine coming from a culture where your wealth is determined by how much you give away, where you have a relationship with your land rather than own it, and where your language has no word for "rights." Then you come into conflict with outrageous -- yet legal -- machinations of corporate entities intent on ripping off everything you hold sacred.

When Moana Maniapoto -- whose Web site identifies her as "the diva of New Zealand music" -- toured Germany with her band, she was in for a shock: A German firm had trademarked her name and told her she would have to pay thousands of Euros to use it in performance or to sell CDs in that country. Ultimately, Moana lost her legal suit for the right to use her own name in Germany.

The Maori singer was the narrator of "Guarding the Family Silver," a documentary illustrating the commercial appropriation of symbols, designs, words and images from native cultures worldwide. The film was shown Nov. 13 at the A.D. White House, followed by a roundtable discussion on cultural heritage, intellectual property and indigenous peoples led by two tribal leaders and a Cornell professor, Audra Simpson, herself a Kahnawake Mohawk.

Corporate representatives in the documentary didn't seem overly troubled by what is at the very least unethical swiping from indigenous cultures, discussion participants observed. "Colonialism and empire are taking new forms: multinational corporations and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]," said Simpson, an assistant professor of anthropology who teaches in the American Indian Program. "It's a problem of consent. Who owns native culture?"

In many cases, the answer is whoever gets there first to register a trademark, reducing cultural capital to branding fodder, according to the film. Ford freely adapted Maori tattoo designs for use on one of its trucks. Video games grab native design elements (and use them incorrectly), which are also used to hawk cigarettes, coffee and video games -- often with no share of profits going to tribes.

"This whole domain of intellectual property issues has been at the forefront of our work within the tribe," said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, which oversees programs in archives and ethno-history, archaeology, Hopi language and repatriation.

Also taking part in the discussion was Chief Darwin Hill, a Tonawanda Seneca who has worked since the mid-1980s on a United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the nonbinding declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 13 of this year). Among its 40 articles is a provision on intellectual property. Four countries, each with large indigenous populations, refused to ratify the declaration: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States.

"The work will go on, striving for what is right for us and for all people," Hill said.

"We're trying to hold on to our culture. Once we've lost that, we are no longer," warned Kuwanwisiwma.

The event was sponsored by the American Indian Program, the Department of Anthropology and several other campus organizations in observance of Native Heritage Month.