Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.[1] Cultural heritage may, or may not have a physical presence.

All cultures are influenced by, and influence each other, as a natural consequence of contact with, or awareness of each other. This is particularly so in a growing global environment, where digital technologies create new and rapid systems of information access and exchange. The processes or acts by which cultures are influenced by each other, or take on each other’s attributes is called cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.[2]

Misappropriation of Indigenous cultural heritage defines the intent of appropriation more clearly. It is an act of acquisition, based on creating or exploiting the often-inequitable conditions of many Indigenous peoples and communities, where reciprocity and mutual benefit flows are not considered and provided for.

“Misappropriation describes a one-sided process where one entity benefits from another group’s culture without permission and without giving something in return.”[3]

Cultural misappropriation significantly impacts the ability of Indigenous peoples and communities to manage the maintenance, expression, protection and transmission of cultural heritage. It also challenges Indigenous peoples’ rights of ownership and cultural control over aspects of their culture. Regardless of the intent, cultural misappropriation can be disruptive to the cultural, social, spiritual and economic health and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples and communities.

It can also cause considerable offense and harm, and in some cases, may infringe copyright laws.

When misappropriation of Indigenous people’s cultural heritage occurs it is often defended as a tribute, promotion, acknowledgement or influencer by the agent(s) involved. Although there may be good intent to portray or incorporate aspects of Indigenous cultural heritage in a project or design, without the informed consent and full involvement of Indigenous people as owners of the cultural heritage in question, the intent of such acts is questionable.

Protocols protect the most vulnerable aspects of Indigenous cultural heritage to ensure that Indigenous cultural heritage remains resilient to misuse and remains within an appropriate context. Protocols are also useful to assist in locating the correct Indigenous people or communities to engage in your research or project, as Indigenous cultures are often very specific to local areas and regions.

Indigenous peoples commonly use protocols to establish, manage and maintain engagement and relationships with each other and others. Protocols, their value, and appropriate use can be understood as:

“… a set of rules, regulations, processes, procedures, strategies, or guidelines. Protocols are simply the ways in which you work with people, and communicate and collaborate with them appropriately … Protocols are the standards of behaviour, respect and knowledge that need to be adopted. You might even think of them as a code of manners to observe, rather than a set of rules to follow…”[4]

Many Indigenous peoples do not rely upon protocols that are contained in a documented form. For this reason, many research institutions and organisations have developed stand alone Indigenous protocol documents that guide people in working appropriately with Indigenous peoples and communities.

The ethical assessment of the design and conduct of research and projects requires careful consideration of Indigenous protocols. This contributes to a culturally safe working environment between researchers and Indigenous peoples, by ensuring that research does not cause “harm”, and that agreements are in place to ensure mutually respectful and beneficial engagement, processes and outcomes.[5]

Commonly grouped principles for working with Indigenous peoples are:

  • Rights, respect and recognition
  • Negotiation, consultation, agreement and mutual understanding
  • Participation, collaboration and partnership
  • Benefits, outcomes and giving back
  • Managing research: use, storage and access
  • Reporting and compliance.[6]

These broad principles should form the basis for agreement making when working with Indigenous peoples or communities, and support important protections against wilful or inadvertent cultural appropriation of Indigenous peoples’ cultural knowledge, intellectual property or cultural heritage – both tangible and intangible.

Building the principals for protection of Indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, into the design of your research or project will minimise “discrepancies between your practices and the values you want to be associated with.”[7]

Developing and maintaining strong ethical and principled approaches to working with Indigenous peoples and communities is a core consideration for all researchers and designers. The avoidance of misappropriating Indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage can be achieved by building and maintaining open and mutually beneficial relationships, guided by mutually understood and agreed protocols with Indigenous peoples and communities.

Informed consent should feature as a prominent recognition of Indigenous peoples’ and communities’ rights to make decisions about, manage and protect cultural heritage, it’s use, transmission and adaptation.

Like all cultures, Indigenous people’s cultures and cultural heritage is dynamic and responsive to innovation. However, Indigenous cultures include key cultural and ceremonial aspects that are continuous and unchangeable, even over long periods of time.

It is always important to check when permissions, informed consent and protocols should be used in your research or design work. This provides certainty for researchers and designers, as well as considerable opportunities to develop strong, creative relationships with Indigenous people and communities that can be of mutual benefit and enriching for all involved.

Fiona Hamilton – Trawlwulwuy Heritage Officer, Writer, Artist, Cultural Producer, Violence Educator, Ethicist and Activist. Fiona lives on Country in Tasmania.

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