Wednesday 20 August 2014

The ownership of stories in indigenous Australian culture

This post is based on Gillian Polack's talk, Three Indigenous Australian Writers at Loncon3. The writers in question were Ambelin Kwaymullina, Melissa Lucashenko and Yaritji Green (links to their Goodreads pages). The talk raised some of the usual issues about non-western 'speculative fiction': the tendency to fall outside genre boundaries for various reasons and the inevitable politicization of people's cultures and identities.

What I really want to talk about is the systematized way cultural property works in indigenous Australian culture in contrast with the 'openness' of multiculturalism in Britain, and what I see as a more Americanized discourse on cultural appropriation. It's complicated, so I'm going to attempt it over several posts.

The first challenge is to communicate what's actually involved in indigenous Australian cultural property. I liked Yaritji Green's explanation in this discussion on The World SF Blog (now demised). I really recommend reading the whole thing, but I'm copying the bulk of Yaritji's contribution in case it disappears:
I have written this doorstopper of a fantasy based on dreaming entities from the Yankunytjatjara side of the family. I wrote the bulk of it while studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at Flinders University. The degree I did allowed me to choose the topics I wrote my assignments on, and through my studies I came across this thing called copyright: a strange and wonderful thing which is good for the western world but does not fully protect the creative and intellectual rights of Indigenous Australians. We are the world’s oldest surviving culture yet we often find ourselves on the back foot playing catch up to legislation and policies that often were not explained (if explained at all) until too late and that does not address or cover Indigenous copyright or ownership principles.
So back to this copyright thing. Indigenous copyright is conceived as a heritage that is passed down; you learn the stories of the land and its inhabitants so that you can pass it down to the next generation. Our stories also have borders; we can own a story up to a certain landmark and then the neighbouring community owns the story from that landmark onwards. Some stories or characters can be shared between nations. However with the westernised concept of copyright, ownership generally goes to one person/corporation. Then once the copyright holder dies copyright remains in place for 50 years then it becomes public domain: then anyone can use it.
So back to my doorstopper, it is sitting there, waiting. It sits there wondering if it might ever get out into the world. Sure, I could make some quick money by getting it published. Use the ‘exotic other’ of my Indigenous culture, my ‘exotic other’ Indigenous name, my western knowledge and my western networks to get this story out there and milk it for all its worth. But at what cost? I’m not prepared to sell out my community’s heritage. With Australian copyright laws the way they are, the cost is too great; it takes too much from my people.
As far as how the culture I’m living in now affects my work, I am careful about what I write. I speak to my Elders. I share what I am going to write about. I had this idea, I thought was wonderful, so I shared the basics with family and other Indigenous writers but after a discussion it turned out that some parts of my idea would conflict with culture. So I thought, okay, I can’t do that but I can still do this, this and this, and my story will still have strength without selling out. Everything is about respect. Respect for culture.  Respect for others. Respect for myself. If I can’t respect my culture then I have no respect for myself. It may be a different story if I wrote outside of Speculative Fiction. I wouldn’t have to be so careful – well other than, you know, avoiding being libellous. I want to write the stories I want to read, stories my community might want to read.
Adding to what Yaritji said from what I've learned in the field of art history, I think it may help to understand that it's not just the right to tell stories (or paint them) which is owned by specific communities, individuals, genders, age-sets and so on, but the right to hear them. In the case of painting, the issue is not just seeing a painted story, but seeing and understanding it without having the right to do so. So, a 'man's painting' may be viewed by western women who are not expected to understand it, but if a woman of the relevant community views it, even accidentally, the penalty may be severe. In Australia exhibitions of Aboriginal art often carry warnings and have separate viewing spaces to prevent inadvertent viewing.

Some people, especially westerners I suspect, might like to understand the approximate nature of these secrets they are not to understand. I'm reading between lines quite a bit here, but I think it's very much tied to the specifics of an area of land. If you can recognize the individual landscape elements referred to and interpret the stories which go with them there may be a problem. It's as if knowing the story for a given waterhole signals ownership of that waterhole. (If you're reading this and know better please offer corrections or expansions on this!)

To return to written stories, Yaritji Green explained indigenous ownership by comparing it to western systems of copyright, intellectual property, etc. I think it also helps if we add a comparison to non-literary story cultures in other parts of the world. In Europe, we have a long-standing tradition of archetypal stories which have been told in some form throughout Europe, Eurasia, perhaps even the whole of the Old World (and its diasporas). We have lots of regional and individual variations and adaptations of those stories but only specific published instances of them can be owned. The archetypes or story structures are not property at all. They aren't used to confirm ownership of anything or signal any kind of group membership. They're used to give form to ideas, hopes and dreams. Sometimes they can be quite political, sometimes they're escapist. Often, as oral tellings, they've been associated with people who had no connection with any kind of ownership (especially land ownership) since so long ago it might as well be for ever. It's well worth paying attention to this non-elite aspect of the deep-rooted differences between western and non-western cultures, especially since non-westerners usually forget (or don't know) about it in their analyses.

Back to painting and the differences between current notions of 'cultural appropriation' and traditional Aboriginal ownership... We might imagine the term cultural appropriation applying to someone like me, a European, deciding to paint my own bit of European landscape in Aboriginal style. This would certainly be problematic if I commercialized my work as 'Aboriginal' because a) it would offend a mainly western notion of authenticity and b) it could divert income and attention from the Aboriginal artists who depend on it. It might also seem a surprising choice to Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals alike. But it isn't an act which transgresses traditional indigenous Australian notions of cultural property per se, because (except exceptions) indigenous Australians don't claim ownership of pieces of European land, the particular stories attached to them or particular designs for telling their stories.

Somewhere near the other end of the scale, we have the openness of multiculturalism in Britain which I'll hopefully get round to writing about in a day or two.

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