cover of book

Who Owns Native Culture?
by Michael F. BROWN
Harvard University Press, 2003
Cloth: 978-0-674-01171-7 | Paper: 978-0-674-01633-0 | eISBN: 978-0-674-02888-3
Library of Congress Classification K1401.B79 2003
Dewey Decimal Classification 346.048


The practical and artistic creations of native peoples permeate everyday life in settler nations, from the design elements on our clothing to the plot-lines of books we read to our children. Rarely, however, do native communities benefit materially from this use of their heritage, a situation that drives growing resistance to what some denounce as "cultural theft."

Who Owns Native Culture? documents the efforts of indigenous peoples to redefine heritage as a proprietary resource. Michael Brown takes readers into settings where native peoples defend what they consider their cultural property: a courtroom in Darwin, Australia, where an Aboriginal artist and a clan leader bring suit against a textile firm that infringes sacred art; archives and museums in the United States, where Indian tribes seek control over early photographs and sound recordings collected in their communities; and the Mexican state of Chiapas, site of a bioprospecting venture whose legitimacy is questioned by native-rights activists.

By focusing on the complexity of actual cases, Brown casts light on indigenous claims in diverse fields--religion, art, sacred places, and botanical knowledge. He finds both genuine injustice and, among advocates for native peoples, a troubling tendency to mimic the privatizing logic of major corporations.

The author proposes alternative strategies for defending the heritage of vulnerable native communities without blocking the open communication essential to the life of pluralist democracies. Who Owns Native Culture? is a lively, accessible introduction to questions of cultural ownership, group privacy, intellectual property, and the recovery of indigenous identities.

Table of Contents:

Author's Note

1. The Missionary's Photographs
2. Cultures and Copyrights
3. Sign Wars
4. Ethnobotany Blues
5. Negotiating Mutual Respect
6. At the Edge of the Indigenous
7. Native Heritage in the Iron Cage
8. Finding Justice in the Global Commons

Sources on Indigenous Cultural Rights

Reviews of this book:
Every once in a while critical reason triumphs over political correctness and identity politics, and the result can be exhilarating. Michael F. Brown, who is the Lambert professor of anthropology and Latin American studies at Williams College and knows more about intellectual property law than most legal scholars, has written a brave, logical and even witty book about some of the hazards and challenges of cultural heritage protection.
--Richard A. Shweder, New York Times Book Review

Reviews of this book:
This is an excellent guide to conflicting logics and to what occurs when 'culture' is transformed from an abstraction into something apparently tangible and immutable as 'heritage.' This outstanding book is also a plea for flexibility in civil society and social justice for First Nations.
--O. Pi-Sunyer, Choice

Michael Brown brings a discerning anthropological eye and ear to the passionate questions raised by efforts to protect native heritage from use by outsiders. Who Owns Native Culture? is a major and vital work, opening up to view a tournament of values central to contemporary thinking about culture.
--Fred Myers, New York University

The genius of the book is both to bring together a vast amount of disparate material... and to add to this the author's own touch: his ability to present embattled people and conflicting logics with hopes for provisional, practical, empirically wise and humane solutions.
--Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge

An outstanding book on a subject of vital importance. Michael Brown has emerged as a commanding figure in debate about this subject, and here we see why. Not only does he cover a tremendous range of issues but unlike other books on the subject, his offers guidelines for how such complex issues should be politically negotiated. Must reading!
--Katherine Verdery, University of Michigan

Everyone whose research involves indigenous cultures, indigenous property rights, or intellectual property issues should have a closely read and well-highlighted copy of Brown's book.
--Joe Watkins, University of New Mexico

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