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Cultural appropriation: Make it illegal worldwide, Indigenous advocates say

Delegates in Geneva from 189 countries are looking at the issue, and some want UN to speed it up

Hilary Bird - CBC News

June 13, 2017

James Anaya, dean of law at the University of Colorado is urging member states of WIPO to make Indigenous cultural appropriation illegal under international law. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Indigenous advocates from around the world are calling on a UN committee to ban the appropriation of Indigenous cultures — and to do it quickly.

Delegates from 189 countries, including Canada, are in Geneva this week as part of a specialized international committee within the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency.

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Since it began in 2001, the committee has been working on creating and finishing three pieces of international law that would expand intellectual-property regulations to protect things like Indigenous designs, dances, words and traditional medicines.

In this 2011 photo, purchased items from Urban Outfitters' Navajo line are shown in Tempe, Ariz. The Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters months after the tribe sent a cease and desist letter to the clothing retailer demanding it pull the 'Navajo' name from its products. (Matt York/Associated Press)

The meeting takes place as concern grows worldwide about the rights of cultures to control their own materials. In the U.S. this week, designer Tory Burch agreed to change the description of one of her coats for women after Romanians protested that it had been described as African-inspired when it actually appropriated a traditional Romanian garment.

Speaking to the committee Monday, James Anaya, dean of law at the University of Colorado, said the UN's negotiated document should "obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions."

Anaya said the document should also look at products that are falsely advertised as Indigenous-made or endorsed by Indigenous groups.

That would mean products like those in U.S.-based retailer Urban Outfitters "Navajo" line, Anaya said, including "Navajo hipster panties," a "peace treaty feather necklace" and a "Navajo print flask."

The Navajo Nation launched a legal battle against the company for trademark infringement in 2012. The case was settled out of court late last year.

Delegates from 189 countries are in Geneva, Switzerland this week negotiating international laws that would protect Indigenous cultures from exploitation. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Anaya is one of several Indigenous leaders at this round of negotiations who are questioning just how seriously some member states are taking the negotiations.

The committee has been working on three draft documents for 16 years, and member states are now going through them line by line.

It is a painstaking, slow process, and some Indigenous leaders say they are frustrated and disenchanted about the committee's future.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde says Indigenous peoples in Canada need to be 'part of the dialogue' on protecting Indigenous cultures from appropriation. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"We are only halfway through 2017 and yet the number of occurrences of misappropriation happening to Indigenous Peoples in all regions of the world seems relentless with no relief in sight," said Aroha Te Pareake Mead, a member of the Ngati Awa and Ngati Porou tribes in Wellington, New Zealand.  

"We asked the international community to help deal with a problem that traverses international boundaries and are still waiting."

Low participation

Mead said part of the problem is that Indigenous groups around the world have no idea about the committee's work and often aren't being consulted by member states.

"People at a national level don't know what's going on, and there aren't many processes where you can get information about this or contribute to the positions that are being taken here."

Mead also noted that WIPO has what she called "one of the lowest" rates of Indigenous participation.

"The issues being discussed at the [Intergovernmental Committee] are also being discussed in Indigenous organizations and communities all around the world on a regular basis. So why are there not more Indigenous representatives here?"

Indigenous participation 'crucial'

There are Indigenous groups from around the world taking part in this round of negotiations, including groups from New Zealand, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia and the United States.

There is no Indigenous representation in the Canadian delegation.

Officials with Global Affairs Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and Canadian Heritage are taking part in this round of negotiations, but the lack of Canadian Indigenous representatives is drawing criticism from the Assembly of First Nations.

"The elders and knowledge keepers are the authorities who should oversee the creation of guidelines and a process for utilizing Indigenous knowledge in any activities," Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told CBC in a written statement.

"We welcome the investigation of such topics on an international stage like the United Nations, but it's crucial that Indigenous knowledge keepers are part of the dialogue."

There was no word on whether the federal government plans to consult with the AFN after this round of negotiations wraps up on Friday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hilary Bird

Hilary Bird is a news reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. Hilary can be found on Twitter @hilarybirdcbc.

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