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Indigenous Leaders Want UN to Make Cultural Misappropriation Illegal Worldwide

Cris Bournocle/AFP/Getty Images

In 2012, Urban Outfitters came out with a new “Navajo” line that included “Navajo-themed” products — including panties and a flask — without first asking permission from the Native American tribe. Almost five years and countless angry tweets later, the clothing company and Navajo Nation reached a settlement last November.

This week, indigenous advocates from all over the world are working with a special UN committee of the World Intellectual Property Organization to make cultural misappropriation of Indigenous peoples illegal worldwide, CBC News reported.

On Monday, delegates from 189 countries met in Geneva to discuss the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore’s progress since its inception in 2001.

If it passes, the international treaty would further protect cultural traditions, knowledge, and resources by obligating states to create “effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures” of cultural misappropriation.

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“It’s just not right, the non-consensual taking of indigenous peoples knowledge-based cultural expressions and the misuse of that,” James Anaya, Dean of Law at the University of Colorado, told Global Citizen. “The treaty really basically applies the same concept of ownership rights and intellectual property rights but for Indigenous peoples.”

Anaya is one of several indigenous peoples advocates and leaders who attended this week’s efforts to push states to apply civil penalties to those who falsely advertise products as Indigenous-made or endorsed by Indigenous groups.

“It’s the same rationale essentially as any kind of creative work — you want to respect and protect the creativity that people put into work and you don’t want others to profit wrongfully from that,” Anaya said. “For indigenous peoples, artifacts, items, and certain objects can have sacred meaning and the misuse of them by others is against basic dignity interests.”

Most recently, several Coachella music festival attendees apologized for culturally misappropriating Native American headdresses, after Dr. Adrienne Keene, Native scholar, blogger, and activist, called them out on Twitter.

One of the women responded in an Instagram post: “I want to genuinely apologize to anyone who has been upset about my headdress post at Coachella. I’m human and I admit there are many things I’m still unaware of.”

The international law would protect things like headdresses, as well as Indigenous designs, dances, words, and traditional medicines.

In October, the committee will meet with the World Intellectual Property Organization to review the progress of the treaty, which is now 16 years in the making. Several Indigenous leaders from around the world —  New Zealand, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia and the United States — have expressed their frustrations with the painstakingly, slow process.

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"We are only halfway through 2017 and yet the number of occurrences of misappropriation happening to Indigenous Peoples in all regions of the world seems relentless with no relief in sight," said Aroha Te Pareake Mead, a member of the Ngati Awa and Ngati Porou tribes in Wellington, New Zealand.  

"We asked the international community to help deal with a problem that traverses international boundaries and are still waiting."