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Protecting Identity and Art: 17 Years of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

That someone will copy or even steal an idea is something most artists have to contend with. But with Indigenous artists, the risk may be even higher.

You don’t have to look far to see evidence of this theft; from tribal tattoos to west coast designs, it seems everyone is cashing in on indigenous artistry.

Everyone that is, except Indigenous Peoples themselves.

Fitting then that the theme of this year’s International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples (August 9) is, “Indigenous designs: celebrating stories and cultures, crafting our own future.”

Created 17 years ago, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is meant to promote and protect the rights of the world's Indigenous population and to recognize the achievements and contributions indigenous people have made to the world.

Part of this year’s observance will be a special event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, a discussion around affirming and reclaiming Indigenous artistry.

Roberto Mukaro Borrero is with the United Confederation of the Taino People (Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean) and chairperson of the Non-Governmental Organization Committee on the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

He says the discussion is long overdue.

“Indigenous Peoples’ designs, intellectual property and traditional knowledge have been appropriated,” says Borrero. “Our designs are linked to our cultures, it is a historic tradition that is tied with who we are as a people.”

Loretta Sarah Todd (Cree/Metis) knows that link well.

An internationally acclaimed filmmaker from Edmonton, Alberta, she says that the spirit of her ancestors continues to live through her work.

“When I think of my film work, I think of it as an extension of my grandmother, my ancestors. Design is not just something that exists. It is the way we look at the world and the way we experience it. It is how we observe the world and express it in the work that we do,” says Todd.

Todd is the force behind Tansi! Nehiyawetan, a television show on Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) aimed at teaching children the Cree language.

She recalls that during the 1990s, appropriation was alive and well in the film industry.

“There was this idea that anybody could tell an aboriginal story. It had been going on in Canada for years.”

But some have begun fighting back.

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An expert in American Indian federal laws, Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) has dedicated the last four decades to helping protect and promote Native sovereignty, arts, culture and human rights.

“They've been raided and pillaged in the same way by invaders of our lands,” she says.

“We are fighting the same kind of mentality and people when we try to protect our traditions, culture, knowledge and cultural patrimony.”

Harjo helped develop the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), the National Museum of the American Indian Act (1989), and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), to name just a few.

According to Harjo, those pieces of legislation get the job done.

“There is nothing like the ability to have the United States hand someone a subpoena if they don't abide by them.” But, she says, “there needs to be greater penalties imposed and fewer loopholes for people to escape them.”

Harjo recommends a few steps for Indigenous Peoples to take when protecting their traditional cultural properties.

“The first thing for every Native nation is to make a list and declare what is theirs. Look at other repatriation laws or other laws for that matter from another country and ask what it is you like and how you could make those better.”

Finally, send those notices to a patent and trademark office (for those living in the United States).

At the international level, The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is the specialized agency of the United Nations which works to promote and protect intellectual property.

For 10 years now they’ve been creating rules surrounding intellectual property rights, including protection for things like traditional knowledge, folklore and cultural expressions.

While it sounds impressive, lacking is the legal enforcement behind its’ well-intentioned work.

“It (WIPO) presumes that there’s a formal legal system, enforcement is based on an existing code of law,” says Rama Rao, director of the New York based office.

But many countries simply don’t have laws around intellectual property rights, and Rao admits that this is a major challenge for WIPO.

But despite the lack of any real legal enforcement, Roberto Mukaro Borrero believes progress can still be seen at the U.N.

“While it seems like nothing, things are actually happening, and we are affecting the political will of these countries,” he says.

“At least the conversation is happening, whereas before we were a non-issue.”