Critical copyright, cultural flows, traditional knowledge, and the future






Despite example after example of Western atrocities, it is always someone else who is the cruel and pitiless barbarian.

(Deborah Root, p. 7)

On April 1, 2011 Survival International, an NGO dedicated to issues of indigenous survival, ran an article stating that a UN Intellectual Property Tribunal had just granted South American Indians a 1 percent share of profits on all potatoes sold in the world “in recognition of the fact that potatoes as we know them are effectively an indigenous creation.”2 The article highlighted the contribution of indigenous peoples to the evolution of the potato, among other vital foods that feed the globe. Indymedia picked up the story and it made the circles of activists interested in indigenous and food security issues.

The story of course was an April Fool’s joke. There is no such thing as a UN Intellectual Property Tribunal and the director of this tribunal, Dr. Desirée Dauphi-noise, has a last name that is a recipe for a potato dish. While many working on food security issues with limited acquaintance with intellectual property laws may have believed the story, it was indeed false.

Survival International issued a follow-up to their fake news report to explain why it was produced:

Many people ask, “What can tribal peoples teach the rest of the world?” Most don’t know that tribal peoples have already given the world some of its most important foodstuffs, which sustain billions of people and which have already saved countless lives, particularly in poorer countries.

The purpose of the 2011 Survival April Fool was to shock people into realising, and remembering, this important fact, which tends not to be taught to young people or covered by the mainstream media.

Tribal peoples obviously did not develop advanced machine-based technology; they did however develop most of the world’s staple food crops. When allowed to, they often still choose a way of life different to that of industrialised society. This does not mean they are “backward” or “primitive”. They are a vital component of the world’s human diversity, but are routinely treated with contempt, their rights abused, and their lives and ways of life denied them. Survival seeks to change this. Its April Fool is just one of many tools used to do so.3

In other words, Survival International sought to highlight the hypocrisy of an intellectual property system that does not acknowledge the debt of human innovation owed to indigenous knowledge systems, which remain unprotected by modern intellectual property regimes. From the vantage of the twenty-first century, the logic of private property not simply over land, but over ideas themselves, has prevailed.4

Indigenous communities see traditional cultural expressions and knowledge as part of the larger struggle for autonomy, sovereignty, and self-governance. From the perspective of indigenous communities, history is a story of the West benefiting from indigenous knowledge and practices while imposing a colonial politics over the world.5 As a result, many indigenous peoples have come to realize that they must play a move in the intellectual property game. Intellectual property discourses have become one important avenue through which indigenous groups establish their difference in the face of the homogenizing forces of the nation-state, modernity, and the international order that supports this conceptual ordering of the world.

As indigenous people in myriad communities across the globe have sought to establish their autonomy, to resist the colonial powers of the settler state, and to articulate authentic positions from which to ground their daily lives, they have turned to international governance systems to forge relations with each other that bypass the nation-state. Gaining international visibility has been instrumental in disrupting the idea of the unitary state that speaks for all its citizens. Furthermore, the efforts of indigenous peoples to redefine the debate over creativity and control of ideas has served as a catalyst for others who are also interested in a future for creativity that is more flexible than that advocated by the culture industry. For indigenous peoples who have struggled to retain traditional culture in the face of modernity and the powerful pull of the nation-state system, making protection of traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions a political issue has helped create the possibility of a paradigm of creativity and cultural integration that retains knowledge, art, music, and dance as part of a culturally integrated whole that is not easily located within an individual author or bought and sold as commodities.

While traditional culture may stand outside culture industry practices, or seek to retain authenticity outside commercial culture, as the Survival International article illuminates, commodified culture appropriates and privatizes what indigenous people have created. Copyright was designed to protect knowledge that could be assigned to an individual author and to facilitate the commodification and exploitation of culture as a private right controlled by a copyright owner. Making this step, which many indigenous peoples have now done, will have an impact on how culture and traditional creative expressions are perceived and protected. This means that what is most difficult to negotiate is how one might make arguments about protecting traditional knowledge, facilitate the preservation of traditional cultures, or perhaps even resist the extension of a copyright-based property discourse in traditional knowledge without resorting to claims of private property and individual ownership.

However, for many indigenous communities, seeking to offer property-like protection over traditional cultural expressions and knowledge may seem like the logical approach to preserving the community from further colonial harm. Furthermore, to achieve legal protection, indigenous peoples must rely upon the state, a governance structure many groups do not see as having legitimate sovereign control over their everyday practices. In other words, there is no easy answer to the issues posed by a history of colonial appropriation of knowledge and culture, the continued use of traditional knowledge without appropriate protocols because it is perceived as in the public domain, and the struggle for sovereignty that many indigenous peoples around the world see as an important political goal.

The complexity of the policy space regarding indigenous knowledge is described by Christoph Beat Graber as one of double fragmentation—where not only is there a multi-layered international agency policy response to the issue, but multiple different indigenous responses as well.6 Such policy fragmentation makes the debate enormously complex as well making multiple different potential outcomes possible. This chapter looks specifically at the claims regarding indigenous knowledge in an effort to tease out the complexities of possible protective measures. Associated with different arguments made by those advocating for protective measures of intellectual property are different policy outcomes and trajectories along which future action may develop.

The first section will elaborate on why intellectual property law is ill fitted to protect the culture of indigenous peoples and can be understood as antithetical to traditional ways of life. To study the relationship between indigenous knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, cultural preservation, and copyright law, this chapter will explore the ways in which “authentic” expressions of a specific group are often conceptualized and also attempt to locate claims about cultural authenticity within the larger tension between tradition and modernity. Furthermore, the tension between tradition and modernity and how these relate to our understanding of the future must be thoroughly investigated.

In the second section, I would like to elaborate on three possible political pathways regarding the future protection of traditional knowledge. These three narratives fall upon a continuum of protection of intellectual property that are commonly used to help explain the place of culture, knowledge, and art within indigenous societies. They offer different choices for indigenous people and governments as they think about what the best way to protect culture might be and, as the concept of path dependency suggests, will offer fundamentally different futures as possible outcomes. My goal is not to prescribe a specific path, but to outline several different paths related to the future of indigenous culture and the ways it ought to be protected. Thus, the last section uses the example of Nunavit, traditional cultural expressions, and modernity to elaborate on the arguments floating in the policy space of international discourses about the protection of traditional cultural expressions and the complexities of global cultural flows.

Each pathway recognizes that the story we tell about the past and the relationship of indigenous peoples to their history and culture sets up different possible futures. Within these different stories we can puzzle through the complexities and controversies of the issue of traditional knowledge. Each pathway also represents an effort on the part of indigenous peoples to preserve their autonomy and culture, and groups can and often do use a combination of all of these different arguments when seeking to protect their communities. My interest here is to tease out the implications of each claim as it falls along the continuum from maximum protection to no protection at all and provide some analysis of what types of laws and policies might best help facilitate each one.

The colonizing practices of copyright

Valuing cultural diversity and being tolerant of other cultures is a relatively recent phenomenon. The colonial projects that have framed both capitalism and the modern nation-state demanded a range of accommodations from those colonized, from assimilation to intentional cultural destruction.7 European voyages of discovery, for example, often treated the people, the wildlife, and local plant species as the same. What the Europeans saw as “primitive” cultures were understood as the object of study or as curiosity pieces to be displayed for entertainment and educational purposes; indigenous people were not seen as subjects of mutual discussion about knowledge or culture.

Western exploration and colonization went hand in hand with the evolution of research. However, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith points out in her path-breaking book on the colonial implications of research methodologies:

When discussing the scientific foundations of Western research, the indigenous contribution to these foundations is rarely mentioned. To have acknowledged their contribution would, in terms of the rules of research practice, be as legitimate as acknowledging the contribution of a variety of plant, a shard of pottery or a ‘preserved head of a native’ to research.… Thus, indigenous Asian, American, Pacific and African forms of knowledge, systems of classification, technologies and codes of social life, which began to be recorded in some detail by the seventeenth century, were regarded as ‘new discoveries’ by Western science. These discoveries were commodified as property belonging to the cultural archive and body of knowledge of the West.8

Smith details how research, and the enlightenment project generally, were built upon the appropriation of knowledge “discovered” through the act of colonizing indigenous peoples and claiming new territories. Because Western scholars understood indigenous peoples as the objects of research instead of equal subjects in a collective research process, Smith argues that the very act of research is itself part of the colonizing process, the effects of which remain intrinsic to the research process today.9

Colonial projects of discovery are integrally linked to the enlightenment ideal of sharing knowledge. Furthermore, the resulting state-based colonial systems entrenched a way of understanding the world that was at odds with pre-existing indigenous understandings of the land and their place within it. In the “post-colonial” world, while some indigenous communities may be able to claim alliance with a nation-state, many communities find that they remain minority voices within the state system, a system that has come to overlay multiple different groups, often in a manner that pits one group against the other.

Contemporary struggles are typically framed over issues of diversity and multi-culturalism that, while perhaps having some resonance with indigenous ways of life, tend to push for diversity within the context of the national system instead of multiple and fractured sovereignties located in the individual identities of different indigenous groups. National discourses on multiculturalism are of course important, but they are required because state boundaries not only fail to consider how colonial practices brought together diverse groups of people who migrated either voluntarily or by force, but they also ignore the claims of the indigenous peoples trapped within the nation-state system.

While most modern state discourses embrace claims of cultural diversity, tolerance of difference, and multiculturalism, which can have the unintended consequence of fracturing the unifying narrative of a national project, state actors still seek to construct a viable national narrative, which has the intended effect of making the claims of indigenous sovereignty less visible. National identities are designed to support the state-building project against other possible alliances. The nation-state, as identified by Paul Hopper, consolidates under a “national culture,” which by definition must entail “excluding those who were perceived as not belonging and the dismissal of other cultures as inferior.”10

Claims of indigenous sovereignty by contrast illuminate the fictional basis of a unitary national system and at least some of the voices that have been historically excluded from the narratives of the nation-state. Telling the story of colonization and its impact on indigenous communities highlights the fact that efforts to construct the state required that not all people within its boundaries be considered citizens, and it also required the illusion that the state spoke for all the people within its boundaries, when all too often it only spoke for specific settler groups. What decolonization practices have been excellent at doing is unpacking the unifying narrative of the nation-state.

Into the larger flow of decolonization strategies and challenges to the concept of the nation-state, indigenous peoples offer a unique moment of disruption for the national project, given that most, if not all of indigenous peoples, have been overwhelmed by settler states.11 Lorenzo Verancini highlights the problems produced by settler colonialism and argues that to date there has been no way possible to envision a future that would be genuinely post-settler. He contrasts the relative ease with which multicultural futures were imagined with the inability to envision decolonial futures:

Discontinuing settler colonial forms requires conceptual frames and supporting narratives of reconciliation that have yet to be fully developed and narrated. Nation-building in formerly colonised contexts can be difficult, but at least it can be conceptualised; enacting genuine post-settler passages in white settler nations is another matter. (As mentioned, multicultural remaking was comparatively easier to approach, as it does not involve unsettling foundational settler narratives. Multiculturalism allows for an expanded definition of who can claim belonging to the settler body politic that leaves settler colonial structures unchallenged).12

Within the context of settler colonialism, decolonization was not a choice. Instead, indigenous efforts have had to struggle against, adapt to, or integrate with the dominant frame of modernity and the colonizing framework of a national state system that strips them of sovereignty, land, and often the option to practice their culture. As Veracini notes, the prevailing discourse of the nation-state could not conceive of returning sovereignty to indigenous groups, meaning that often the decolonizing efforts associated with a transfer of sovereignty to post-colonial administrators is not available to indigenous peoples who remain trapped within settler-state political systems.13

The complexity of the settler colonial system is compounded by the fact that arguments regarding the sovereignty and preservation of traditional cultures are made within the constraining conditions of modernity and the nation-state system—both concepts heavily indebted to previous colonial occupations and imperial ways of controlling the world.14 At a general level, assertions of cultural autonomy are historically linked to democracy movements and efforts to decolonize throughout the global South.15 More specifically, colonial systems have little room to understand the arguments made by sovereign indigenous groups regarding their history or culture. However, conceptually, the nation-state, and modernity more generally, are so hegemonic as to make alternatives virtually invisible or unthinkable.

Indigenous people, however, problematize these otherwise “natural” relationships, as argued by Dirlik:

Indigenous people have added a whole new dimension to the understanding of colonialism by pointing to their colonization at the hands not only of the First but also of the Second and Third Worlds, themselves victimized in different ways by colonialism. The continued colonization of indigenous peoples raises questions about assertions concerning the end of colonialism. It also underlines the fundamental character of the nation-state as a colonizing force, enforcing cultural homogeneity and assimilation even where they do not exist. The indigenous idea of community directly challenges the claims of the nation as “community,” while the indigenous search for a political space that exists above the nation presupposes a higher legal authority than the nation-state. In either case, sovereignty is shifted from the nation-state to the local community, or the supra-national organizational and legal context of the nation-state.16

Indigenous sovereignty claims challenge the power of the nation-state. As Dirlik suggests, there are multiple possible fields from which indigenous peoples can locate arguments about sovereignty other than the nation-state. How might this relate to intellectual property and the protection of traditional cultural expressions and knowledge?

Within the larger system of settler colonialism and the ideology of modernity, copyright itself is an ideological practice. When I say that copyright is an ideological practice with colonizing tendencies, I am speaking about several layers of colonization. First, intellectual property systems play out within the larger system of Western colonial projects and modern imperialism. As Europe colonized the world, it imposed its legal systems, including its IP systems upon its colonies. In the aftermath of decolonization, the remaining states typically retained the legal structures of Europe while entering into debates over the relevance of IP to their particular situations.17 In the decades of ensuing postcolonial efforts, these states generally did not reject earlier laws but instead adopted them as a starting point for cultural protection.18 Settler states can thus retain laws that are at odds with the indigenous peoples and practices found within their national borders.

Furthermore, the colonial practices of Western nation-states are mirrored by the colonizing practices of academics who have seen the cultures produced by indigenous groups as raw material for the further production of knowledge, a process that leads to the “erasure of non-metropolitan experience,” including the experience of colonization.19 Academics are engaged in building knowledge within the liberal tradition—an ideological framework based on the assumption that knowledge of the past must be improved so that we can achieve “progress” in the future. Thus, to contribute something “new” means to produce knowledge that will enhance our understanding of the human condition or other lofty goals that academics impose on their work. However, the process of research within a global context is implicated in the power of colonial forces to appropriate the world into a Western paradigm.20

Copyright is essential to the liberal tradition that protects “progress,” by establishing a proprietary right to the intellectual fruits of one’s labor. While academics may not be as attuned to economic benefits of producing intellectual work, the concept of the public domain is essential to the process of academic progress. The underlying assumption of a liberal academic system is that progress requires the circulation of ideas as freely as possible, an ideological position that was accentuated by Cold War debates discussed in Chapter 3. The ideology of intellectual progress is so ingrained that many academics cannot conceive of people wanting to preserve knowledge as private, local, or not available for general consumption.

While commercial interests have the goal of transforming everything into property and capturing the economic value of cultural products, thus transforming public knowledge into private knowledge, academics embrace the opposite impulse—to turn private knowledge into public knowledge that can facilitate our march towards a better future. In the name of progress, for example, social historians use private letters, journals, and personal belongings to construct the history of a period. In most cases, these written documents were not intended for public consumption, and many whose private lives have become public knowledge may not have approved of their private materials serving such a purpose. The tension, however, exists between the values of an academic community to produce knowledge that contributes to the better understanding of our past, and thus to a better future, and the interests of the individual or community in retaining control over their private writings or cultural artifacts.

Given the drive for progress enshrined in academic pursuits, indigenous people have often found themselves the raw material of academic work. Anthropology, for example, has historically approached indigenous communities as a resource for scholarship.21 They see past lives or contemporary cultures as the data upon which to build public knowledge about the world. While anthropology today is more reflexive in its approaches to indigenous groups, anthropological research exemplifies the ways in which the collection and preservation of knowledge over time has been a colonial problem that often results in the misuse and appropriation of indigenous culture and knowledge in the name of academic freedom and progress.

Copyright plays a controversial role here. Indigenous cultures have often preserved knowledge through an oral and not a written tradition. They have specific cultural rituals, many of which are not designed for general public viewing. Copyright law, however, protects things “fixed in a tangible form.” Underlying traditions, which remain ephemeral, receive no protection under modern copyright law. As anthropologists have explored the world, documenting oral histories and artistic practices, as expressed through music, dance, cloth making, and sculpture, the results become tangibly fixed though video, writing, and publications. Such a fixing of culture places it within the world of copyright law. However, the owner of the copyright is not the indigenous storyteller. The copyright goes to the one who fixes the story—the researcher.

Copyright does not protect traditional knowledge located with the group, but extends protection to the author of the academic work that results from research using indigenous knowledge. Without specific legal agreements (only recently being written) locating the ownership of digital or analog recordings or publications of traditional stories, music, or art, within the community, indigenous people lose control over the authored or archived materials. Additionally, what was once private is now public and though it was never meant to enter either a “public” domain or a commercial domain, it may be in both.

Academic works are different from commercial works—they are not published for commercial reasons (usually), but instead to produce knowledge about “humankind.” The proprietary rights associated with copyright, however, exert the same colonizing force—they wrest control over the preservation and production of culture from the hands of the local communities. Copyright can thus do harm to local communities, while ostensibly creating knowledge for a larger “public good,” meaning knowledge under a modern ideal of progress.

The expansion of copyright globally demonstrates another colonizing impact of an ideological project—in this case an economic model to protect creativity. As Johanna Gibson notes, “the narration of traditional cultural expression within the western social model for recognizing and rewarding conventional forms of creativity—copyright— risks a similar colonizing effect upon contemporary indigenous and traditional cultural expression.”22 The ideology of intellectual property translates all creative work into the product of an individual, justifies the individual’s ownership by assuming that their “original contribution” is the most important part of the work, and asserts a private property right around this creation. Once property lines have been drawn, the individual work is divided from the vast sea of cultural innovation and creativity from which each person draws their inspiration. What is difficult to say is how much that is “original” is left to protect when a work can (or should) otherwise be situated within a cultural and creative context indebted to all that has gone before.

As part of its ideological project, copyright imposes a capitalist framework on the creative process and reduces the incentive to create to the idea that people only do it for money. While copyright was developed to protect commercial works by extending a limited monopoly to the copyright owner so that they would have an incentive to circulate them in a market system, creating a property right in ideas also created the outside—the “public domain.” Into that world fell all those things that had not yet been commercially exploited, including all historical forms of knowledge, culture, and art. Thus, copyright became a tool that could be used to pull things out of the “public domain,” which it produces through establishing boundaries between what is owned and not owned. The works of traditional cultures and non-commodified expressions that either pre-date or transcend the traditional copyright paradigm are included by default in the public domain.23

As the commercialization of American and European folk music illustrates, copyright was used to appropriate and privatize non-commercial traditional music.24 Songs whose original authors where lost were performed, arranged, collected, and sold by those who sought to commercialize them. Folk music thus became copyrighted as those interested in commercial exploitation pulled songs from the public domain into the commercial world of copyright. While the underlying song could still be performed freely, the recorded “new” versions required permissions not associated with traditional music.

By constructing the commercial world of copyright and the “free” world of the public domain, those embracing a copyright framework search out the possibilities of maximizing profits from the cultural richness of the public domain. Western powers are implicated in this process, but so too are nations of the global South and indigenous peoples themselves when the commercialization of culture is seen as a way to support a national or local economy.25 Efforts to capitalize on the uniqueness of a traditional culture as a commodity are evident in attempts to turn local culture into tourist attractions.26

Finally, copyright colonizes the future by closing off all other ways of talking about culture, creativity, and possibility.27 By colonizing the future I mean that the powerful ideologies of the present marginalize alternatives and render the multiple possibilities that could be the future void. In the place of many alternative futures, there is instead a single future that is merely the status quo extrapolated forward. The field of futures studies takes seriously the idea that we should decolonize these futures by thinking about the possible alternatives and providing these visions to others.28

I am beginning with the concept of copyright as colonization because claims made regarding intellectual property and copyright in the context of traditional knowledge come with a baggage of ideology and associated practices. Traditional communities at the local and international levels have now debated the role of copyright for indigenous peoples for several decades. The key is to struggle against the ideological colonization of a specific property rights regime while at the same time seeking to develop some mechanism for preserving and protecting indigenous rights. This is a difficult balance that many have struggled to achieve. What seems clear from the current literature is that multiple claims made by indigenous peoples, legal scholars, policymakers, and activists about the role that intellectual property can or should play exist, and these different claims can lead to very different types of protective regimes and ways of thinking about indigenous knowledge and expressions. Thus, the multiple tactics in the language game as it relates to indigenous knowledge must be evaluated.

As part of the process of establishing independence, in 1995, the Inuit released the results of the Nunavut Implementation Commission’s report on the future governance of the newly defined territory of Nunavet.29 The report outlined how the future government ought to be designed, including decentralized rule over the Artic territory. The report titled “Footprints in New Snow,” included the words of Amittuq MLA Titus Allooloo, who spoke at the first Nunavut leaders’ summit in Iqaluit in January 1992.30 As Mr. Allooloo put it:

Our future lying before us is like freshly fallen snow, and we had better be careful about how we walk on it. It will leave footprints for others to follow.31

While the metaphor may change depending upon local geography and climate, the sentiment is worth considering, especially when issues of law and policy are to be discussed. The relevant academic literature is path dependency—that decisions made in the past influence our economic, policy, and innovation options in the present and establish specific future trajectories.32 While we cannot undo the path that has led us to this point, we can think intentionally and politically about the future paths we choose to follow and, if possible, we can seek to disrupt the assumptions that the most traveled path is the one that should dominate discussions. This chapter looks at a range of claims made by indigenous groups today in order to understand the paths that such claims establish for the future of culture and the protection of traditional knowledge.

In developing the following pathways, I am trying to pick up on several threads interwoven into contemporary debates about the public domain, traditional knowledge, and intellectual property and connect them to their likely policy outcomes. I want to ask many questions: who should have control over indigenous knowledge? How should that knowledge be preserved and protected? What is the relationship of this knowledge to the larger world? As Michael F. Brown argues, it isn’t so much about who owns native cultures, but rather “how can we promote respectful treatment of native cultures and indigenous forms of self-expression within mass societies?”33 These are conversations that people throughout the world will need to have as they face the colonization of national systems and the legal processes that would appropriate knowledge as a commodity. While it is possible to follow several paths simultaneously, each of these paths charts a different set of footprints for the future.

Pathway one: preserving the past—neotraditionalism

In a recent article in Taiwan Today, author Cheryl Robbins notes that:

Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are facing a cultural crisis. There has been an exodus of young people from the villages to urban areas in search of work and study opportunities, which has made it difficult to pass on languages, traditions and history. Those that remain in their villages are often restricted from carrying out traditional activities such as hunting and fishing, due to their locations within national parks or protected areas, leading to further deterioration of their culture. Autonomy can serve to relieve or reduce the enormity of this crisis.34

This assessment of the cultural crisis faced by Taiwan’s indigenous people helps to frame the concern that many indigenous peoples feel about the loss of tradition. As a result, many indigenous people seek to shore up traditional cultures by asserting autonomy and resurrecting the essential aspects of their culture. Of course, for some groups, there is no “neo” attached to the traditionalist approach, if it has been possible to retain cultural practices without too much outside interference. However, for many a concerted effort to reclaim languages, cultural practices, and ways of knowing that have been destroyed by colonial projects is fully underway.

Taiwan has recognized the need to preserve traditional ways of life of its many indigenous communities through the creation of the Taiwan Indigenous Culture Park, which is designed to give visitors insight into the lives of the different indigenous groups living within the national borders.35 Within the culture park, different Taiwanese indigenous groups are able to practice their way of life as it has traditionally been done. These groups are given a space outside the world of modern Taiwan in which to follow their cultural practices. As modernity assimilates indigenous groups and other cultures, a response in the form of organizations such as Survival International has emerged, whose goal is to preserve autonomous spaces where indigenous peoples can pursue their lives without being touched by the modern world.

The neotraditionalist firmly embraces past traditions and seeks to use them to construct a way of life and a unique indigenous identity outside modernity. Many indigenous communities blame the inability to fully practice their traditional culture as the source of the problems they face, including losing young people to the colonizing or settler culture. In the absence of a traditional cultural fabric, many feel isolated and alienated from their heritage, but not at home in modernity either. At issue is cultural survivability through tradition, language and a link to land. To follow the neotraditional pathway, indigenous communities reinvigorate their language, art, music, and stories and seek to protect their culture by controlling how knowledge about the community and its cultural practices are accessed. Furthermore, they seek to clarify that there are different indigenous epistemologies that structure thought, action and life.36

Claims to authenticity and traditional culture can be politically problematic. First, given the colonial paradigm within which they are made, it is worth considering Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s comments regarding authenticity. She warns:

Questions of who is a ‘real indigenous’ person, what counts as a ‘real indigenous leader,’ which person displays ‘real cultural values’ and the criteria used to assess the characteristics of authenticity are frequently the topic of conversation and political debate. These debates are designed to fragment and marginalize those who speak for, or in support of, indigenous issues. They frequently have the effect also of silencing and making invisible the presence of other groups within the indigenous society like women, the urban non-status tribal person and those whose ancestry or ‘blood quantum’ is ‘too white.’37

Given that a traditionalist path is fraught with political tactics and challenges, it is important to recognize how the concept of the authentic can be used within the colonized world, both to empower, but also to disempower indigenous actors. It is also important to recognize that claims to authenticity can be the position from which an oppositional discourse can be produced.38 However, in either case, these are political choices to consider.

For those seeking to follow the path of neotraditionalism, emphasis is placed on ways of life that continue much like they did prior to contact with the relevant colonizing forces or, for those communities who were forced to assimilate, a concerted effort is made to retrieve lost traditions. Such a project may be criticized for being “inauthentic,” but it can be an important foundation for the revitalization of cultural practices and ways of life.

A traditional paradigm for indigenous knowledge frames life in specific ways. First, it sees indigenous peoples as deeply connected to the land and experiencing the world in a way that is holistic, not fragmented; spiritual, not commercial; and bound by the community, not the individual.39 The land for many indigenous peoples “is part of the social order,” and culture and art emerge from this important connection.40 The neotraditionalist argues that culture must be protected and preserved as is without alteration. The links to the past are stronger than to the present. The neotraditionalist does not want the future to deviate substantially from the past. For the neotraditionalist, creative expressions are linked to the community, they are not commodities, and they are not a source of income because they maintain the sacred connections of a community to each other and to the land.

Second, for the neotraditionalist, authenticity of a community is found through isolation. When the state is involved, one sees the creation of cultural parks and reservations as one way of establishing an authentic traditional culture where traditional lifestyles can be practiced in relative peace. There is an assumption at the heart of the neotraditionalist approach, as it is produced through the state, that indigenous cultures are authentic if they can preserve a distinction between inside and outside, self and other. Protecting and preserving culture as unique is central to the neo-traditionalist way of thought. Resisting integration into modernity allows the community to remain distinct from the assimilating functions of the nation-state and a global political economy.

The more remote from modern cities and technologies, the more possible it becomes for neotraditionalists to structure a life based upon traditional culture and practices. As a renaissance in the practice of traditional lifestyles commences, many groups reclaim languages, artistic traditions, and practices to create a culturally sound and holistic way of life. They do so intentionally—taking their cue from other cultures that have successfully retained a sense of identity and community in the face of modernity. While the state may help support this internalizing turn, because the direction of the neotraditionalist tends to be inward, they are also substantially less threatening to the larger national project—within their cultural preserve the community may be able to express itself authentically, but the state itself is not challenged.

One issue for the neotraditionalist is the method of storing knowledge in the form of the archive. Given that traditional cultures are engaged in a life or death struggle with modern ones, archives for cultures seeking to reclaim the past can and do play a significant role in understanding heritage. An archive can also serve as a resource for future generations who can reconstruct the past through archival materials. Current archival materials, often collected about traditional groups not for them, have come to serve local communities by allowing them to reconnect with a past that was destroyed by colonizing forces. The neotraditionalist in an effort to shore up the boundaries between modernity and traditional culture can use archival work to do so.

However, a second issue for those seeking a neotraditional path is that the concepts themselves should be unpacked. As Monika Dommann points out, “the concept of tradition is a child of modernity.”41 That it is constructed as a social and legal category that became relevant as its opposite—the modern world—became understood as a category of identity.42 Citing Hobsbawn and Anderson, Dommann notes that tradition is invented as part of the process of nation-building during the nineteenth century and results in a dichotomy constructed between the ‘folk’ and a state.43 As Coleman notes about categories in relation to traditional knowledge, since they do political work there is always room to re-evaluate our categories of understanding.44

That what we call traditional cultures continue to exist within the boundaries of nation-states across the globe is evidence of a long battle to preserve cultural autonomy in the face of the assimilatory tactics of the state, as well as an effort to remain linked to cultural traditions, even as modernity and its pervasive framework alters and severs connections with the past. However, the act of preserving “the traditional” must also be understood critically. As Jane Anderson notes about using the words “traditional knowledge”:

Firstly, I want to suggest that the ways by which indigenous knowledge is equated to “traditional knowledge” is representative of the way that indigenous knowledge structures and thus indigenous people subsume a position of exteriority to contemporary cultural practice. The pervading emphasis on the “traditional” component of indigenous knowledge facilitates a perception of incompatible differences between indigenous and western knowledge— upholding the unworkable dichotomy alluded to above by Agrawal. Secondly, the emphasis on traditional knowledge significantly affects how indigenous knowledge is understood and made intelligible before the law. This therefore underpins how realistic outcomes in intellectual property law are envisaged. Reliance upon the term “traditional” precludes an appreciation of the dynamism of indigenous ways of knowing: fixing in time, and therefore in the past, forms of knowledge that are, through practical utility, constantly evolving.45

In other words, one must recognize the problems with the concept of “the traditional” and ensure that these claims are not used in a manner that would be harmful to indigenous peoples. Anderson suggests using the term indigenous knowledge instead of traditional knowledge to avoid unnecessarily connecting indigenous peoples to a traditional past. As with many claims, it is important to keep in mind the position of who is making the claim and the types of politics that can result.

Given that all cultures, even “traditional” ones, change over time, the preservation of culture in a tangible and fixed form can make change difficult by freezing traditions into a specific mode that is then permanently articulated as “the way things are done.” As the oral tradition is passed along to new generations, it is often adapted and given the space to evolve with the community; thus traditional cultures are not static, but adaptive. Preserving an oral culture as fixed may change this process of adaptation. If neotraditionalists see their culture as a living experience, not something that should be frozen in time, archival work, especially done by outsiders, may be suspect.

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