Caught in the Middle: Intellectual Property and Indigenous Communities

Vol. 5 No. 4

By

Lawana L. Bryant is an attorney advisor with the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Contracting. She specializes in intellectual property, federal acquisitions, and other contract-related matters. She is a member of the Corporate Counsel Women of Color. She can be reached at BryantL@si.edu. Katherine E. Lewis is vice chair of the ABA’s Museum and the Arts Committee organized under the Section of Science and Technology and currently works on a contract basis as an attorney advisor with the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Contracting, although this article was written in her personal capacity. She can be reached at katlewis864@gmail.com. Maia Puryear is an attorney advisor with the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Contracting. She specializes in copyright law and also works closely with matters related to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015. She can be reached at PuryearMJ@si.edu. Alyssa Reiner is an attorney advisor with the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Contracting. She specializes in copyright law, with an emphasis on music, visual arts, and new media transactions. Ms. Reiner can be reached at reinera@si.edu.

For centuries, museums and cultural institutions (collectively “institutions”) across North America have pur- chased, collected, catalogued, displayed, and exhibited the artwork, sacred objects, and, particularly, human remains of indigenous peoples from regions across the continent with minimal regard to the cultural importance of those items and remains to their respective tribal and native communities. One could argue that this inherent insensitivity was not intentional but due to the mission of most institutions to educate the public at large. With this mission, however, comes the obligation to responsibly display and exhibit all artwork and sacred objects with the dignity and respect of their native origins.

To gain a better understanding of what it means to exhibit such objects within the appropriate cultural context, it is important to define or at least comprehend what those objects mean to a member of one of these ethnic groups. There is no formal definition for indigenous peoples. However, during the United Nations “Workshop on Data Collection and Disaggregation for Indigenous Peoples” in New York City in January 2004, the special rapporteur prepared a background paper entitled The Concept of Indigenous Peoples, offering the following working definition of indigenous peoples:

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