SFU prof creates guidebook for cultural appropriation

n 2015 Dr. George Nicholas gave a presentation at TEDx Yellowknife, a symposium that focused on indigenous issues.

Borrowing pieces of other cultures has become common practice in popular culture and even in literature. This leads to an important question: what is the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?

SFU professor of archaeology Dr. George Nicholas — in collaboration with academics, students, individuals in the community, government, and indigenous organizations — have been working over a period of a seven years to help answer this question.

Their initiative, the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project, is an international project to tackle cultural appropriation and the imbalances of power that accompany it.

One of the ways Dr. Nicholas and his colleagues are tackling this issue is by creating a guidebook on the ways to avoid cultural appropriation, called “Think Before You Appropriate.”

The goals behind the guidebook and the IPinCH project are to develop ways to avoid or confront these issues, or to eradicate them and limit their impact. Another main goal for the project, according to Dr. Nicholas, is to develop resources that indigenous people, policy makers, academic researchers, and the public can use to make more informed decisions to avoid appropriation.

One of the key messages in the guide is how to differentiate between borrowing from a culture and respectfully appreciating it, or disrespectfully appropriating it in ways that are harmful. These harms can be cultural, social, or economic.

“We were not trying to curtail research or put restrictions on knowledge, but knowledge needs to be used respectfully or with permission,” said Dr. Nicholas.

The guide spells out the difference between appropriation, which “means to take something that belongs to someone else for one’s own use,” and misappropriation, which is a “one-sided process where one entity benefits from another group’s culture without permission and without giving something in return.”

“Not only do indigenous peoples have little control over their own affairs, but their ways of life and traditional knowledge have been largely viewed as public domain, free for the taking. Concerns about the exploitation and appropriation of their culture are rampant,” Dr. Nicholas said in a TEDx Talk.

Along with the cultural appropriation guidebook, according to Dr. Nicholas, IPinCH also features a multitude of other resources, including the “Appropriation (?) of the Month” blog series. This series works to illustrate that appropriation comes in many forms, and that it is not always easy to discern cultural borrowing from appropriation, which explains the “?” in the title.

For individuals looking to be aware of appropriation while shopping, Dr. Nicholas explained that “If you’re interested in buying certain objects or clothes it’s so easy to Google search and see if this design has been created with any kind of input from the native artists or indigenous community, and it’s just a matter of asking a few questions.”

For those with positive intentions, there are a few precautionary steps that should be taken: “If nothing else, a lot of people want to wear or have items that have native or First Nations designs on them [. . .] Indigenous communities do want to share their heritage [but] they want it to be done respectfully and used appropriately.”

In 2013, those involved with the project received the first Partnership Award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their work. They continue to spark dialogue regarding intellectual property rights and cultural appropriation.