By Jack Sorensen ’13
If someone stole an item or possession from you they’d be called a thief and prosecuted accordingly. But what happens when it’s a stolen thought, story or tradition? United States copyright law is built to protect the intellectual property of citizens, but may not be the solution for many Native Americans.
It was a day of giving at the sixth annual Northwest Indian Storytellers’ Association, as tribal leaders converged to share traditional stories and discuss Native American storytelling as it converges with United States law and customs.
The topic of storytelling and intellectual property rights was particularly prevalent at the event, held at Portland State University Oct. 15. The day primarily consisted of informative seminars and storytelling workshops, but a mid-afternoon group discussion about copyright laws and tribal traditions explored the latest conflict between American Indian culture and the U.S. government—what can only be described as the theft of culture and identity.
Esther Stutzman, from the Kalapuya and Coos tribes, is an elder member with Wisdom of the Elders, a storytelling association closely tied to NISA. Stutzman and other elders discussed the importance of stories in their tribal and familial traditions. For Native Americans, stories are much more than entertainment for children — they are fables intended to educate, inspire and guide. Stutzman said when stories are told, they are given as gifts from the storyteller’s family, and listeners are told whether they may retell the story or not. She said keeping stories safe and, most importantly, true to their original form is integral in maintaining cultural integrity.
“The story is the message, not the word,” one elder shared.
But when those stories cross cultures, tradition is not always honored. Stutzman and Woodrow “Woody” Morrison, an Alaska Haida native, shared experiences they’ve had with authors, anthropologists and ethnographers who publish traditional stories, copyright them, then in turn sue Native Americans for “retelling” what are now marketed as the authors’ stories.
This process of compiling and homogenizing native culture is tantamount to “genocide with a pen,” said Toby Tafoya Joseph.
Joseph is an Apache/Ute native from Colorado. He lives in Tacoma with his Cowichan wife and her tribe, since Indian relocation in the 1970s would not recognize Joseph or his children as natives in Tacoma. His wife, originally from Cowichan tribal lands on Vancouver Island, was relocated to Tacoma as part of a U.S. government relocation act. Joseph was forced to assimilate to be accepted.
He holds on to his familial stories as a way of maintaining his cultural identity in what he described as an increasingly homogenized Native American culture, reflecting on having to change his tribal identification so he and his children would be considered “true Indians” by the U.S. government.
Identifying a solution to the conflict is not as easy as identifying the problem, and most viable solutions require the abjuration of Native American beliefs and traditions. According to U.S. copyright law, a document may be copyrighted and protected by the author at no charge—the iconic © is essentially free. For a fee, citizens may submit their intellectual property to the U.S. Copyright Office, where the document is placed in a protected database.
While this may seem like an easy solution for Native American storytellers, it presents even more cultural conflicts. As elders shared during Saturday’s panel, the writing or recording of oral traditions is forbidden in most tribes—in trying to evade intellectual thefts and protect their culture, Native Americans would be betraying their own cultural integrity.
Still, some see it as a necessary evil to protect their heritage and identity.
For Native Americans willing to record and copyright their stories, I would propose a state grant intended for Washington-born or Washington-relocated Native Americans that would shoulder the fees of submitting documents to the U.S. Copyright Office. The fee for a traditional paper submission is $65, while the fee for an online submission is only $35. While many may decline the service, choosing to uphold oral traditions, the legal ground would provide some ammunition for Native Americans fighting to protect their history.
Most opponents of formal copyright proposals are elderly members of native communities, caught in the battle between ancient practice and modern crime, wishing on the nonexistent integrity of intellectual thefts.