March 27, 2013

Caught in the Middle: Intellectual Property and Indigenous Communities

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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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