UN Meets To Discuss The Business of Cultural Appropriation


By Paul Meekin

The CBC reports the UN is meeting to discuss making business-related cultural appropriation illegal.

“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…are in Geneva this week as part of a specialized international committee within the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency,” said the report.

This came across my eyeballs via a report from The National Review:

“Indigenous activists from all around the world are calling on a United Nations committee to make cultural appropriation a criminal offense.”

The UN Council is meeting about cultural appropriation as a business issue, not a social one. Intellectual property versus personal expression.

This is a nuanced but important point. They are not meeting to say you can’t wear dreads, or a toga, an Afro, or hoop earrings. Instead it’s questioning, on an international level, whether to give indigenous people intellectual property rights to their culture as it pertains to consumer products.

An example given relates to Urban Outfitters’ ‘Navajo’ clothing line, which included a ‘Navajo print flask’ ‘peace treaty feather necklace’, and something called ‘Navajo hipster panties’. The Navajo tribe cited trademark infringement and the case was settled.

No Navajo in the name, no problem. The issue exists in companies attempting to gain authenticity by using specific cultural touchstones, or getting them wrong.

It’s sort like how you can only be Champagne when you’re from Champagne. Otherwise you’re sparkling wine.

James Anaya, dean of law at the University of Colorado, wants to “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.”

And that mostly makes sense to me. You can’t pass off your work as someone else’s, you can’t lie about where your work comes from, and how it came to be. As long as this remains a question of giving the people of a particular culture the right to protect their property – in this case, their namesake, culture, and religion, I’m all for it.

But if it comes down legislating to whether or not I can wear Navajo inspired clothing, or a toga, or an afro, well, that’s a completely different, and wholly effed up situation, and one I would hope no one would support; it’s a matter of free speech, after all.



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