Creativity, Recognition, and Indigenous Heritage

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Courtesy Henry Stobart, Musiñu dancers, Sica sica, La Paz, Bolivia

New Resource for Rethinking Intellectual Property

By Michelle Bigenho (Colgate U) and Henry Stobart (Royal Holloway, U of London)

What happens when people decide to claim ownership over ritual dances? What is the effect of declaring such expressions as heritage? Who should control collective knowledge about potato seeds? When is musical borrowing perceived as honoring, and when is it seen as cultural theft? What is creativity? When and where does the inventive step occur? When and how should it be acknowledged? These provocations are central to a recently launched website: Rethinking Creativity, Recognition and Indigenous Heritage/Repensando la creatividad, el reconocimiento y el patrimonio indígena. With the aim of stimulating discussion around the themes of creativity and cultural ownership, especially at the intersections with indigenous rights, this site emerged from a National Science Foundation-funded workshop held in Coroico, Bolivia in 2012. (NSF Law and Social Sciences, Award 1156260. The ideas presented here do not necessarily represent those of the National Science Foundation) The event brought together more than 20 Bolivians from various branches of civil society and set up a mode of dialogue based on small group interactions and plenary discussions around themes like “Creativity and Motivation,” “Creativity and Recognition,” “Circulation,” “Heritage and Knowledge,” and “What to do? Bolivia and the World.”

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Some of the workshop participants at the cumbre (summit) c. 4,650m, on the journey from La Paz to Coroico – Photo Courtesy Henry Stobart

In addition to containing a full report on Coroico 2012, the bilingual English/Spanish site encourages users working in a variety of settings (including university classes) and from different cultural contexts to draw on its resources, adapt its methodologies, and facilitate wider debates on these themes. In particular, under the link to “Resources” or “Materiales,” visitors can download, modify, and reuse the discussion questions and agenda of the Workshop, a set of case studies from around the world, and an introductory glossary of related terms. These resources also include ten brief thematic audio segments in Spanish for use in promoting local conversations about these topics in rural areas where radio remains a key communications medium. Designed and produced by the projects’ Bolivian assistants, Juan Carlos Cordero (music performer, producer, and educator) and Bernardo Rozo (ethnomusicologist and artist), these audio files were part of the local dissemination plan in Bolivia, and are included on the website with the intention that people may use them in other Spanish-speaking parts of the world.

The curators/editors of the site, Michelle Bigenho (Colgate U, U.S.) and Henry Stobart (Royal Holloway U of London, U.K), –both ethnographers with a special interest in music and indigenous issues– have been engaged in different Bolivian-based research projects over a period of several decades. They decided to join forces on this project when many Bolivian friends and consultants expressed desire to speak with them about these topics.

Bolivia has a majority, or near majority, indigenous population (depending on which census one references) and is currently governed by the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who is now in his third term. Morales’ anti-neoliberal rhetoric and process of change includes numerous heritage declarations. These declarations aim to ensure that perceived national-cultural expressions are not exploited by others, including neighboring nations.

As a product of public scholarship the website differs from the curators’ scholarly production of books and articles (including several co-written works currently in preparation). It does not represent their theoretical, political, or analytical perspectives, but brings previously unheard voices into global conversations and encourages other local dialogues like those held in Coroico 2012. Debates about cultural property, knowledge, access, heritage, and indigenous rights are, of course, vibrant and numerous. But many of them take place in isolation from one another, and participants tend to be close to centers of policy-making and power (i.e. those in national governments, UNESCO, WIPO). The website attempts to bring the voices of the participants in Coroico 2012 into global circulation even though those voices are not uniform and do not represent any unanimously supported conclusions on these crucial themes. Nonetheless the Coroico 2012 experience produced a loosely associated civil society group in Bolivia under the acronym “Alta-PI” (Alternativas a la Propiedad Intelectual/Alternatives to Intellectual Property).

With the unprecedented levels of circulation permitted by digital technology and the increased value attributed to local forms of expressive culture, global and local actors alike are newly concerned with questions of how heritage-based creative works should be viewed, acknowledged, and remunerated. Global answers to cultural property dilemmas generally have fallen short with regards to recognition of collective creativity, access in unequal social and digital terrains, and in the relations between states and indigenous peoples. The website does not provide the answers to these dilemmas, but rather brings globally marginalized voices into the conversation. It also provides tools for others to take up these methodologies and craft locally appropriate dialogues on these topics.

The website is available at this link.

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