Brown’s new book deals with culture and ownership

Settler nations for hundreds of years have participated in the cultural theft of native people. They have lifted design symbols and plot-lines of stories and have photographed and disseminated the images of private religious rituals without compensating the owners.

Last spring, Michael Brown, professor of anthropology and Latin American studies, announced the publication of his book, Who Owns Native Culture? By using specific case studies, his book documents the present debate over the protection of Native American cultural heritage.

For example, Brown explains that the flag of the state of New Mexico, which was recently voted the best flag in the United States, features a design element from a pot created by the native Zia tribe. The state of New Mexico has capitalized on the Zia culture for some years without providing proper compensation. In this way, the Zia tribe is demanding that the state pay them a total of $76 million dollars, one million for each year that the symbol has been used.

How to resolve issues such as the New Mexico flag dilemma especially interests Brown. He questions whether culture should be a protected resource and addresses whether culture should be perpetually copyrighted. In addition, Brown also evaluates the practicality of resolutions proposed.

After all of his research, Brown concludes that “cultural protection is a terrible idea.” He does not believe that the government should have laws in place that legally guarantee the safeguarding of culture. “We don’t want to go down that road,” he said. Protection of culture is too complicated and vexing issue, encompassing other issues of free speech, free circulation and censorship.

Instead, Brown supports “face-to-face negotiations” where compromise can be reached. He refers to a debate over the use of public space for ritual purposes as an example of the type of solution that he supports. At Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, there was a stand-off between rock climbers, who used the public space for recreation and Native Americans, who used the space for religious ceremonies.

After much discussion, the National Park Service declared a voluntary moratorium of climbing for the entire month of June. Since the Park Service had to maintain a separation of church and state, the foundation of the argument was based entirely on respect for the Native Americans, and the land they viewed as sacred. As of 1996, the number of climbers who visited the park during the month was down by 80 percent.

The idea for Brown’s book came from a seminar course he taught a few years ago at Williams. He offered the course only once due to the small size of the anthropology department and the department’s need to offer a variety of upper level courses among only a few professors. He also offered a Winter Study course on the subject last spring.

The issue of cultural theft has received much more attention since the advent of the Internet, which has challenged old notions of intellectual property rights. At no other time has information in the form of word, music or image been so easily accessible. “We are clearly going through a transformation right now,” Brown said.

One unique aspect of Brown’s book is his incorporation of technology into the reading of the text. Brown built a website ( www.williams.edu/go/native ) in conjunction with the book that allows readers to explore further the issues discussed in the book. His website offers links to “general sources on indigenous rights” as well as links to original copies of many of the documents that he cites and analyzes in his book. By making primary documents easily accessible, Brown encourages his readers to question his analysis of them and formulate their own opinions.

“I thought it would be fun to break down the walls between the book and the world,” said Brown. This is not common for scholastic monographs.” He views the Internet as the forefront for scholastic work; he foresees the day when all academic journals are entirely Internet-based.

Brown’s book recently received national press with a book review in The New York Times Sept. 14th edition. Having completed his project, Brown does not plan to continue his research of cultural protection. Although he has yet to finalize his idea for his next project, he intends to study the doctor’s dilemma of offering quality care under economic restraints.