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Negotiating Culture: Heritage, Ownership, and Intellectual Property

Negotiating Culture: Heritage, Ownership, and Intellectual Property

Edited by Laetitia La Follette. Pp. viii + 207. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst 2013. $22.95. ISBN 978-1-62534-008-5 (paper).

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Negotiating Culture: Heritage, Ownership, and Intellectual Property, explores the notion of owning things—things like archival documents and personal papers, artifacts, DNA, human remains, language, oral histories, and the Internet. Over the course of a year (2006–2007), the Interdisciplinary Seminar in the Humanities and Fine Arts (ISHA) held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst focused on questions surrounding how things are owned, why they are owned, who owns them, and whether or not things can be owned. This interdisciplinary dialogue took place in a different global climate—preArab uprising, pre–Syrian civil war, pre-Daesh, pre–2010 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) amendments, and pre–explosion of digital humanities. Yet a feeling of prophecy in the topics and themes resonates today. Some of the references are dated, but the volume largely stands the test of time and is a very useful reference for ongoing deliberations on ownership and culture in the past and present.

Traditional topics related to culture and negotiation are embedded throughout the volume: the repatriation of culture, how culture is produced and transformed into various guises, the function of culture in power dynamics and inequality, and the political role of culture in nation building and foreign relations. Contributions to this volume include both the familiar, such as Watkins on the Ancient One and La Follette’s chapter on Marion True and the Getty, and the more unusual, including Subramaniam on DNA and Pi-Sunyer and DiGiacomo on the Salamanca Papers. The compendium of case studies expands our understanding of culture and its deployment as an identity-forming tool that is subject to contested claims of ownership, and to frequent need for negotiation.

In the masterful introduction, La Follette provides the basis for the seminar—competing claims for culture—by foregrounding the chapters from activists, anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians, and linguists. The book proposes models for thinking about ownership and intellectual property centered on collaboration, dialogue, and conciliation. To various practitioners of public, or community, archaeology these are not novel concepts (see Wobst [ch. 5]), but this volume presents new ways of thinking about negotiating over things (culture).

Chapters are grouped into three sections that examine, respectively, disputes, protecting and preserving, and group ownership. Through a consideration of the Ancient One (Kennewick Man) and NAGPRA, Watkins (ch. 1) considers how things in the form of law govern things like human remains. Watkins suggests that NAGPRA muddied, rather than clarified, the ownership waters. The case of the Ancient One pitted scientists against indigenous populations, providing an excellent illustration of Wobst’s (ch. 5) argument that the detachment of scientific archaeology separated practitioners from local populations, leading to disputes over ownership. Since the seminar, new regulations (2010) have provided clarification on what to do with culturally unidentifiable human remains (a key issue in the Ancient One court case). The 2010 rule recommends greater, more extensive tribal collaboration and consultation, which might have resulted in a different outcome in the initial court case. In 2016, the comparison of DNA from the 9,000-year-old skeleton with members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation confirmed genetic similarities, satisfying the cultural affiliation element of NAGPRA. Does this mean there is no longer a need for negotiation over an ancient ancestor? Debate over who “owns” human remains continues, pitting science against the oral histories and traditions preferred by indigenous knowledge. Negotiation over the “ownership” of these things (law, human remains, and sacred items) persists.

Considering disgraced former Getty curator Marion True, La Follette laments, “What is missing, however, is a change in attitude regarding those antiquities that remain in American collections” (39), but a dramatic shift has occurred in the attitudes and actions of museums, collectors, and auction houses since the workshop. There is marked improvement since 2006–2007 for nations seeking restitution of their material remains from western actors. Professional organizations have reformed guidelines and policies. True’s trial ended in 2010 without judgment, but this precedent sent chills through the museum and art worlds resulting in the current atmosphere of cooperation, conciliation, and collaboration over things.

Many contributors illustrate that the negotiation over things is mired in the political. Personal and institutional papers seized from republican groups and individuals by Franco’s armies at the end of the Spanish Civil War allow Pi-Sunyer and DiGiacomo (ch. 3) to demonstrate that heritage is used by governments in distinctly political ways to quell, legitimize, define, and advance particular narratives about the past. Those seeking to recover confiscated archival documents were offered amnesty in exchange for what Pi-Sunyer and DiGiacomo refer to as political amnesia—willful forgetting in the quest for democracy (77). In 2012, the first documents were returned to their owners, but thousands of documents remain in Salamanca, held as part of an ongoing process of negotiation over national narratives, remembering, and forgetting.

Bollier (ch. 7), Speas (ch. 4), Subramanian (ch. 6), and Wobst (ch. 5) provide fascinating insights into owning tangible (DNA, digital commons) and intangible (intellectual property, indigenous language) things. Can they be owned? Should they be owned? Is ownership adopted by nations and individuals in order to conform to a western construct in the age of globalization? In addressing these queries, the contributors turn to professional responsibilities and the ways in which experts, more specifically anthropologists, often fail to acknowledge that indigenous things (tangible and intangible) were traditionally viewed largely as existing in the public domain. In order to encourage shared stewardship, both Bollier and Wobst contend that the first step toward greater consultation and collaboration is a commitment to a common interest—the care and consideration of things from the past. Wobst goes further with this idea of a common interest for a common good by suggesting that the ownership of things should serve the universal collective rather than the profession (126).

There is no single legal or technical solution to the complexity of the owning of things, but this volume provides stimulating case studies on considerations of negotiation, ownership, and things. Property (digital, cultural, and intellectual) is an integral element of communities past, present, and future, and in order to ensure its survival, boundaries need to be transcended (Clingman [afterword]). In an excellent summation, Clingman avers that interdisciplinarity is not a thing but a practice, and the chapters in this volume demonstrate that future negotiations over culture should rely on interdisciplinarity, shared stewardship, and collaboration between equal partners.

Morag M. Kersel
DePaul University

Book Review of Negotiating Culture: Heritage, Ownership, and Intellectual Property, edited by Laetitia La Follette

Reviewed by Morag M. Kersel

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Kersel

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