the united nations may finally make cultural appropriation illegal

Indigenous delegates from 189 countries are meeting in Geneva to make Navajo panties stop happening.

by Hannah Ongley
15 June 2017, 4:33pm

As we learn every festival season, and all other seasons too, there's still a lot of confusion around the difference between appreciation and appropriation. There could soon be a strong incentive to get educated: jail time. Because being called out on the internet doesn't seem to be stopping the proliferation of runway chola bangs and high street Navajo panties.

Indigenous groups around the world are currently calling on the United Nations to make the appropriation of native cultures illegal, reports CBA News. A special committee has been asking for sanctions since 2001, long before Twitter and Instagram became the default ways for offended communities to call out BS and make their cases heard. This week, though, the ball is really getting rolling. Delegates from 189 countries are currently meeting in Geneva as part of a specialized international committee within the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

The committee is pushing for three pieces of international law to put sanctions place. This will expand international property regulations to protect indigenous property ranging from designs to language. The UN should "obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions," James Anaya, dean of law at the University of Colorado, told the committee. Anaya took explicit aim at Urban Outfitters's aforementioned Navajo line, which resulted in the Navajo Nation slapping the company with a lawsuit in 2012. (The case was eventually settled out of court.)

Given that these products keep happening, the committee is understandably irritated that it's taken 16 years for negotiations to reach Geneva. Aroha Te Pareake Mead, a member of the Ngati Awa and Ngati Porou tribes in New Zealand, noted that many national indigenous groups don't even know the committee exists. "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," she said. It will likely take some time to define the borders of appropriation — baby hairs are foggier territory than headdresses — but at least the conversation is moving forward. 


Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Mitchell Sams

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Cultural Appropriation
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