Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why Keep it a Secret?

Edwin Deady, who maintains the fascinating website Dark Age Boats, recently posted the following comment to one of my posts. Rather than having it languish there in the Comments section where only a few dedicated readers will see it, I thought it worthwhile to repost it here for greater visibility:
"May I pose a question about the reproduction and use of indigenous boats? Some builders seem reluctant to share plans other than with the indigenous group for whom they are build, see for example. Now I am not criticising their particular stance and had a very friendly and helpful email on construction details from them but I do wonder what point is served by exclusivity. The same is seen in the singing of some traditional songs where I have even heard a performer say that they had sought permission from a Council of Elders before singing to a non-ethnic audience. If all of my culture is available to the World, you play football everywhere and paddle coracles where you will, why should not the same apply to indigenous boats from other countries?"

I can understand why a group of reenactors or serious academics might want to hide technical aspects of work in progress: so that they can claim credit for new insights and/or gain the glory of a "first." But I agree with Edwin that, once they've introduced their glorious reproduction, there seems to be little reason to hold the information as proprietary. I also question why people of any given culture should attempt to restrict access to elements of their culture's artistic expressions: it seems like the fruits of a parochial worldview, to say that this or that culturally distinctive activity is what separates us (i.e., makes us better than) everyone else.


  1. "I also question why people of any given culture should attempt to restrict access to elements of their culture's artistic expressions: it seems like the fruits of a parochial worldview, to say that this or that culturally distinctive activity is what separates us (i.e., makes us better than) everyone else. "
    The original comment which prompted this post seems to be in response to a particular native group and their canoe designs. I can't pretend to speak for them, but let me throw out some responses to your more general question quoted above.
    1) economic reasons: It is now virtually impossible for natives to pursue their traditional subsistence economy on their reservations or historical lands. Some of them are able to stay in their homelands and make a living as artists and craftsmen/women reproducing traditional arts and crafts objects. Reproductions by outsiders compete with the native version. Native art gets a higher price than non-native imitations, but a potential customer might be willing to settle for the cheaper non-native versions and deprive the native artist of a sale.
    2) Native religious practices were integrated into everyday life. Even as mundane a practice as boat building might have religious aspects to it. When a non-native uses a native artifact, it might be viewed as comparable to a non-Catholic inviting his friends and performing a Catholic mass.
    3) Native groups in America are still rebounding from attempts to eradicate their culture, attempts which didn't cease until sometime during the middle of the 20th century. Now, when both native languages and other parts of their traditional cultures are in danger of disappearing, native groups are trying to figure out what to preserve and how and so they might be concerned about preserving what little is left of their ancestral knowledge.
    It's comparable to modern notions of intellectual property rights. Before they throw their designs into the public domain, where someone outside the culture might profit from them, they may want to keep them as trade secrets. Asking them to share their canoe designs freely may be comparable to asking Disney to let the mouse into the public domain.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful response Wolfgang.

  3. Given the history of "civilizing," "settling," colonization, genocide, and a consistent lack of interest in true mutual respect... the likely extinction of a multitude of indiginous languages (and thus cultures) in the near future... I think it's entirely appropriate for non-"dominant" cultures to restrict whatever they like of their culture. I am not per se arguing that this is the "appropriate" choice, but I also feel that I have basically no business claiming what is. I would also mention that there appears to be a general shift towards opening cultural sharing, connected to a belief that now may be the critical time to act in order to ensure survival of indigenous cultures and/or humanity as we know it.

    On a different note, thanks for this blog! :]

  4. Any peoples are of this world and are fully entitled to participate in any aspect of it that they see fit. What modern technology is accomplishing is the "miracle" that one could choose to become a hunter-gatherer and communicate via Skype etc in the evening doing business and making what money was necessary to support you chosen lifestyle. Unit costs are so reduced that the technology is becoming almost universally affordable.

    What I would like to see is any indigenous people given the choice so that they can take what they want from the modern world and preserve that which is important to them from their own. What I do not think should happen is the creation of human zoos of "preserved" cultures.

    After all indigenous cultures never were isolated except by geography, didn't the Salish trade for Nootka canoes? To be harsh, there is no future in an economy based on the sale of "native" crafts, fashion is transitory, but using those skills to develop that which can compete on a world market could well be the way forward, see the Harris Tweed industry.

  5. Don't know if it's good as an answer to your question, but here's what I witnessed recently :
    French polynesian va'a are in a revival curve since the 80's. Therefore interest has raised in France mainland, leading to boat builders thinking they could "do better" thant indigenous.
    Now we have local clumsy boats, badly designed and not pleasant to the eye, while tahitians try to maintain their business in light, beautifull and efficent va'a.
    Still heard a French boatbuilder, a few months ago, saying it was time for outrigger canoe to evolve (understood his production was the answer).
    Seriously ? For the worst, then. You should see the crap coming out of his shop ...

    Eventually, what's the point in giving up your culture to such arrogant people ?