Prof. warns against cultural appropriation in shopping

A professor at Simon Fraser University says that shoppers should first check if an item or design was created with permission from native or indigenous communities before they buy it.

Dr. George Nicholas, a professor of archaeology at SFU, believes that borrowing knowledge and ideas from other cultures is a sensitive issue and wrote a guidebook explaining how to avoid cultural appropriation.

The guidebook, called Think Before You Appropriate, is part of Dr. Nicholas’ project, Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH), which attempts to correct the “cultural appropriation and the imbalances of power” of the average individual.

“Think Before You Appropriate” discusses how to understand the differences between “borrowing from a culture and respectfully appreciating it, or disrespectfully appropriating it in ways that are harmful . . . [whether] cultural, social or economic.” This appropriation, Nicholas says, harms both the indigenous people and the average individual.

The project brings together students, individuals, and indigenous organizations to better deal with the problem of appropriation and seeks to eliminate it in popular culture, such as in movies, and in academia.

In addition to the guidebook, IPinCH also has a wide variety of resources available to indigenous communities and interested individuals, including a monthly blog, called “Appropriation (?) of the Month.” The blog explains the different forms that cultural appropriation can take and illustrates the fine line between cultural borrowing and appropriation.

In 2013, Dr. Nicholas and IPinCH won the Partnership Award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The award, which highlights IPinCH’s 50 researchers and 15 indigenous communities, was given in commendation of their work with intellectual property rights among the indigenous people.

At its core, IPinCH’s goal is to “develop resources that indigenous people, policy makers, academic researchers, and the public can use to make more informed decisions to avoid appropriation.”

They also strive to train new researchers for the project, having trained dozens so far.

Last year, Nicholas gave a TEDx Talk to discuss the intellectual property rights of indigenous cultures and how people often consider indigenous knowledge as public domain. He said that he seeks to combat that assumption among individuals, especially in terms of the field of archaeology.

“Not only do indigenous people have little control over their own affairs,” he said, “but . . . concerns about the exploitation and appropriation of their culture are rampant.”

Because of this, Nicholas says, shoppers should be aware when shopping in stores or online. He suggests that they Google search the item to “see if this design has been created with any kind of input from the native artists and indigenous community.”

These are steps that should be taken by all, he believes, so that cultural appropriation can be avoided, especially for those who want to “wear or have items that have native of First Nations designs on them.” Native communities are willing to share their heritage and culture, he said, but “they want it done respectfully and appropriately.”

Nicholas argues that the project is not seeking to restrict information or the sharing of ideas, but “knowledge,” he says, “needs to be used respectfully or with permission.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @jelawrence72