Protecting traditional knowledge: Tulalip participates in U.N. conference on protection of indigenous identities

By Andrew Gobin, Tulalip News

The Tulalip Tribes continues to participate in United Nations discussions about protecting the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples, including oral histories and language, cultural expression, and genetic resources. Ray Fryberg Sr. and Preston Hardison of the Tulalip tribes Natural Resources Department traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, for the 13th conference on traditional knowledge and biodiversity February 3rd-7th.  The meetings potentially will conclude with an international treaty protecting indigenous peoples’ rights to their knowledge and any gains therein. Although the international treaty would protect traditional knowledge on a global scale, the real fight is here at home in the United State who has remained one of the strongest opponents to intellectual property rights on a global scale.

“As Indian tribes across the U.S. enter the national and global markets, the need to protect their traditional knowledge has become more prevalent,” said Hardison. “Especially with casinos, the tribes have brands, logos, and now traditional art that is being put out there.”

This touches on one aspect of the intellectual property debate on traditional knowledge; cultural expression. The use of art to brand Tulalip as a business, as a destination, now is vulnerable to being taken and used in ways other than intended, without the permission of the artist or Tulalip.

“We don’t want to set the rules,” he added, “we want tribes to be recognized as having the right to determine how, where, and why their knowledge is shared. Each culture has its own rules dictating those things, it should be up to those people to determine.”

Tulalip has been involved in this discussion at the U.N. since 2001, represented at 12 of the 14 meetings on indigenous knowledge and biodiversity. What they are working towards is a treaty that protects indigenous people on a global scale, recognizing their inherent rights to resources and traditional knowledge, so that those things may not be exploited. Currently, the exploitation of traditional knowledge and resources jeopardizes the survival of indigenous cultures around the world, essentially stripping them of access to their identities.

Ray Fryberg was selected to co-chair the committee of indigenous leaders that spoke to the issue of intellectual property rights. According to reports from the U.N., he was selected for his vast traditional knowledge and passion for preserving all that is encompassed in traditional knowledge, including genetic and natural resources and cultural expression.

Although Tulalip is sovereign, they are not recognized by the U.N. as a sovereign state. They have no seat, no vote, but they do have a consulting voice. Tulalip has to bid for support from other sovereigns, facing opposition most from the U.S.

“For tribes, pressure for protection has to come from within the U.S., not outside. And Tulalip is just about the only one that is in position to do it,” explained Hardison.

Hardison, along with Terry Williams who also works for Tulalip Natural Resources, have continued to be instrumental in the progress for protecting traditional knowledge. They have been involved since 2001, working together at 11 conference meetings, and were key players in the passing of the Nagoya Protocol, which protects the exploitation of genetic resources. The U.S. is not a nation signatory to the Nagoya Protocol.

Current laws in the U.S. have no teeth. The Native American Arts and Crafts Act prevents non Indians from marketing things as Native American art, but it doesn’t prevent the use of traditional methods and materials for personal gains. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act allows for remains and artifacts to come back to tribes if the tribes can prove relationship to or historic connection, putting the burden of proof on the tribes. Tulalip continues to fight on the international stage for these rights, strengthening their position to protect these rights at home in the United States.

Andrew Gobin is a reporter with the See-Yaht-Sub, a publication of the Tulalip Tribes Communications Department.
Phone: (360) 716.4188