The University Record, April 3, 2000

Native elders work to preserve their rights and culture

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

Chief Ron E. Ignace (left) from the Shuswap tribe in British Columbia, and Frank Ettawageshik (right), former tribal chairman of Michigan’s Little Traverse Band of Odawa, were part of a panel discussion at the Society of Ethnobiology conference held on the U-M campus last week. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
“Since the time we were invaded, they continue to invade us . . . our lives, our cultures, our communities. They don’t recognize our elders as doctors and scientists. When we practice our medicine, they take us to jail. They collect our sacred plants to register their medicinal properties and then claim to have ‘discovered’ them. They use the knowledge of our elders to make money for a few wealthy people. Their research is locked away in libraries at universities our children cannot attend.”

Speaking with quiet dignity in his native language, Margarito Ruiz Hernandez—a traditional Tojolabal Maya healer from Chiapas, Mexico—reminded his audience how the rights of indigenous people to control their knowledge, culture and resources has too often been ignored by scientists and private corporations.

Ruiz was in Ann Arbor to join anthropologists and representatives from other native groups in a roundtable discussion at the 23rd Annual Conference of the Society of Ethnobiology held on campus last week. Ethnobiology is the study of the relationship between people and the plants and animals that play important roles in their native culture.

According to Kelly Bannister, a graduate student from the University of British Columbia who moderated the discussion, it was organized to “hear different perspectives and raise awareness of the role played by ethnobiologists in working with members of another culture.”

“We are fighting to retain resource rights over what was left to us by our ancestors and what we will leave to our children,” explained Frank Ettawageshik, former tribal chairman of the Little Traverse Band of Odawa in northern Michigan.

Ettawageshik described how the Odawa worked with local land conservancies to develop the concept of cultural easements on property. Ceremonial sites sacred to the Odawa or areas with native plants are now identified on property deeds. While the property owner continues to hold title to the land, the deed guarantees the property can never be developed in a way that would deny Odawa access to these sites.

In British Columbia, the Shuswap tribe created a territorial heritage conservation law to control how research is conducted. “Researchers must apply for a certificate to study anything related to the biology, culture, archaeology, ethnography, oral histories and natural resources of our people,” said Chief Ron E. Ignace. Studies or books based on this research must be copyrighted in the name of the Shuswap community and copies must be given to tribal elders.

Michael Brown, a professor of anthropology at Williams College, described how one tribe registered 10 petroglyphs—ancient ceremonial rock paintings sacred to their culture—as trademarks to prevent outsiders from printing them on t-shirts for sale to tourists.

Brown explained that some of these conflicts over property rights come from different cultural attitudes toward knowledge and the role knowledge should play in society. “Western society values the free search for knowledge [by everyone], while indigenous cultures believe certain kinds of knowledge should only be shared with certain kinds of people,” Brown said.

All members of the panel agreed that the days of traditional open access to native cultures by ethnobiological researchers are over. “Desert people believe the land was created for us and we have the responsibility of stewardship,” said Angelo Joachin, executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, an Arizona organization dedicated to ensuring that traditional crops are preserved for future generations. “Native cultures should manage their knowledge in their own way and any value derived from that knowledge must be returned to the native community.”