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Greg Younging is working on ways to reduce exploitation of Indigenous traditional knowledge and cultural expression - photo by Jody Jacob
Greg Younging is working on ways to reduce exploitation of Indigenous traditional knowledge and cultural expression - photo by Jody Jacob

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 7 | July 2, 2009

Indigenous Peoples want their culture back

By Jody Jacob

Indigenous knowledge and culture is legally taken and exploited, often for profit, damaging Indigenous peoples and communities in Canada and around the world, says Greg Younging, a professor of Indigenous Studies at UBC Okanagan and member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba.

His research in the area of traditional knowledge, Indigenous rights and intellectual property rights indicates that under the current international intellectual property rights (IPR) system up to 95 per cent of patents, trademarks and copyrights on Indigenous traditional knowledge and cultural expression are owned by non-Indigenous people or corporations.

For instance, says Younging, numerous sport team logos, the 2010 Vancouver Olympic logo, and the canoe and kayak design are just some examples of how Indigenous culture and knowledge have been taken and exploited. As well, Indigenous art, traditional medicine, song, dance, and customs are often used to market items and brand them as “Aboriginal.” Younging offers an example of a company that trademarked the name of a sacred Indigenous ceremony to sell toilet paper.

“It’s a ridiculous situation,” says Younging, who worked for 14 years as the managing editor of Theytus Books, the first Aboriginal-owned and operated press in Canada, before pursuing his PhD at UBC. “Indigenous knowledge is being taken and used with no permission, profits are being made from it and none of the money is going back to the indigenous communities, who remain the lowest socio-economic group in Canada.”

The problem with the current system, he says, is that it puts Indigenous traditional knowledge – often passed down orally through generations – into the public domain without respecting customary laws, spiritual practices and sacred traditions that have governed the use of this knowledge in Indigenous communities for centuries.

Many expressions of traditional knowledge don’t qualify for protection within the IPR system because they are too old and are, therefore, supposedly in the public domain. As well, the “author” of the material is usually not identifiable, meaning there is no “rights holder” in the usual sense of the term; and, traditional knowledge is owned collectively by Indigenous groups for cultural claims, as opposed to individuals or corporations for profit, which makes it much more difficult to protect.

“So what people are doing is taking (Indigenous) content and putting it into an alien context, leaving behind all the rules and cultural meaning of it,” he says. “They just want the beauty of it, or the exotic look of it, and they don’t care what it really means or what it really is, or if it is sacred to a people. Often our traditional knowledge or cultural expressions are misrepresented and presented in disrespectful – and even offensive – manners.”

The consequence, Younging says, is that spiritual and cultural damage is done to Aboriginal Peoples.

“Indigenous peoples have the right to use their art, history, tradition, knowledge, music and other forms of expression in ways that respect their traditions and in ways the Indigenous community agrees with. Once they regain the ownership of those things, they can use them to alleviate some of the poverty that affects their communities,” he says.

Younging is currently involved in discussions with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialized agency of the United Nations dedicated to developing a balanced and accessible international intellectual property system.

“Probably the most important international work is the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore,” he says. “That forum is developing two international instruments –- we don’t know yet if they’re going to be treaties, conventions or declarations. One is to protect traditional knowledge and the other to protect traditional cultural expressions.”

And although Younging is confident this work at the international level will eventually lead to new international laws, he regrets that Canada is not at the forefront.

“There are 12 countries doing something nationally on this issue and Canada is not one of them,” he says.

“It’s unfortunate, because history will look at those 12 countries and remember them as countries who helped the international process by correcting a law they knew was wrong. Canada will be judged the other way.”

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Last reviewed 03-Jul-2009

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