In more than 30 years as an artist and designer, Lou-ann Neel has seen trends come and go.
She has also grown accustomed to a common refrain from people who use her designs, which draw upon traditional styles of her Kwagiulth heritage, without seeking permission. “I’ve heard all kinds of stories around, ‘I’m honouring your culture, I’m making people aware on your behalf,’” Ms. Neel says.
Those experiences, shared by others in First Nations communities, prompted Ms. Neel to become outspoken about copyright laws as they pertain to indigenous artwork. When friends linked her to a new resource, developed by the Intellectual Property Issues and Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) research project based at Simon Fraser University, Ms. Neel was excited by what it had to offer.
The guidebook, called Think Before You Appropriate (PDF), is geared toward non-indigenous businesses, designers and creators. It calls for more thought and less impulse when it comes to copying elements of Native cultures, a practice that has incited public scrutiny of high-profile brands, product designs, sports teams and music festivals.
“People have turned to indigenous heritage as a source of inspiration and entertainment, without realizing that all of that may be part of a still living, still vibrant culture,” says George Nicholas, a professor of archaeology at SFU who has been heading IPinCH over the past eight years. Though the group’s funding period has drawn to a close, Dr. Nicholas says it will continue sharing knowledge with the public. Think Before You Appropriate, as a recent example, is meant to engage the private sector rather than just the academic community.
“We didn’t want to make it sound like it was going to be easy, like if you follow steps one, two and three, you’re going to avoid cultural appropriation,” says Solen Roth, lead developer of the guidebook and co-chair of the IPinCH working group on cultural commodification. She added that many people have intentions to honour or celebrate a culture, but achieve the opposite effect. In the absence of strong protections under intellectual property laws for cultural heritage, the guidebook encourages businesses to think beyond legal obligations and understand potential harms to indigenous communities.
“I think the line has to be drawn around people understanding that this isn’t just a surface, aesthetic art. It’s so much more complex,” Ms. Neel says. “People have talked about it forever, how these [designs] come from our families and our traditions. We invented those shapes and they really belong to us.”