July 25, 2010

On Appropriation - From a Native Attorney's Perspective

My latest book order from Amazon just arrived in the mail: Walter Echo-Hawk’s In the Courts of the Conqueror.

I bought it because it’s been six years since I took an American Indian law class and I really wanted to refresh and update my knowledge in this field, especially since people (aka my family) look to me to answer questions about land ownership and mineral rights (the latest Cobell decision fueled several myths about Indians and land rights), hunting and fishing rights (my dad is an avid hunter and fisher), or jurisdictional questions (i.e. my gramma asked me if, hypothetically, her friend (Native) happened to slam a car door on the leg of a woman whom she didn’t like (non-Native), on Indian land, would she be completely free from legal suit? Yeah, my Gramma is pretty much super hilarious..)

So, I ordered this book (which investigates the current trends in Indian law and reviews the 10 worst Indian law cases ever decided - the legacy of which continues to affect us today).

What I didn’t know was that this lil book was actually a honkin' 460 page BOOK. Hard cover and all. I feel like I look so smart when I carry it around.

I was hesitant to even start reading the thing (because it’s a bit intimidating) but then I read this in the preface: “460 pages from now, you will be noticeably, measurably smarter. The knowledge you are about to gain will not only carry intrinsic interest, it will allow you to become a more responsible, more valuable citizen of your nation. Your knowledge is about to become blessedly robust on some very important topics.”

And I was sold. So I dove in.

Echo-Hawk is an excellent writer. He is clear, he is easy to follow, and he doesn’t get caught up in legal jargon. Though I'm only partially into it, I highly recommend this book to readers from all backgrounds who are interested in bettering our Native Nations, as well as America.

But the reason why I'm posting today is because I came across a well-written paragraph on cultural appropriation. Considering the latest large-scale interest in the appropriation of Native cultures in popular culture, I thought this paragraph particularly relevant:

Echo-Hawk writes:

"Struggles to protect indigenous property can also be understood against the backdrop of colonialism and settlerism. The central purpose of colonialism was to provide riches and land for European elites. To that end, a massive one-way transfer of property occurred in most colonies. In the United States, this included land, natural resources, and personal properties (some of which are called ‘artifacts’ by anthropologists and art collectors). Even dead bodies (called ‘specimens’ or ‘archaeological resources’ by anthropologists) were dug up and carried away. The appropriation extended to intellectual property, such as animal and plant knowledge patented by corporations; tribal names, art and symbols converted into trademarks; and religious beliefs borrowed by New Agers. Even tribal identities have been taken by wannabes masquerading as Native Americans for personal, professional, or commercial gain. In beleaguered Native eyes, little else is left to take and Native legal efforts attempt to stem and reverse that one-way transfer of property and cultural wealth and to protect what little remains. The challenge for settler states is to find a just balance of indigenous rights and relationships so that distinct Native cultures and their nations within nations can coexist and flourish – and not be doomed to extinction" (24-25).

To order In the Courts of the Conqueror, go to your nearest bookstore, or order it online at Fulcrum Publishing, the Native-owned Birchbark Books website, or Amazon.com for those on a tight budget.