George Nicholas, archaeology professor at Simon Fraser University, is the recipient of SSHRC’s first Partnership Award. As director of the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) research project, he, with colleagues, has promoted a model of collaborative research that empowers and protects Indigenous communities, while also enriching scholarly inquiry.
Developed by Nicholas in partnership with Julie Hollowell of Indiana University and Kelly Bannister of the University of Victoria, IPinCH explores the rights, values and responsibilities relating to heritage objects and places as well as the intangible values and cultural knowledge that give them meaning.
This includes ancestral sites and artifacts, as well as art and music, oral histories, and sacred practices, all of which often hold significant cultural, economic and spiritual value. “Intellectual cultural property of individuals and communities is an integral part of their identity, world view and heritage,” Nicholas said. “But it is often considered to be in the public domain and, therefore, inadequately protected by law.”
IPinCH involves more than 50 researchers, 25 partnering organizations and 15 indigenous communities in Canada and around the world. The group has worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; Nunavut’s Inuit Heritage Trust; and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
The partnerships with communities are based on a simple concept: that researchers and research subjects are equal partners in decision-making.
“We use a new model of research that ensures that, in the realm of cultural heritage, the source communities benefit directly from research on their heritage. The usual model has been that it’s the academics who benefit through their research,” he said.
The IPinCH team also works to limit inappropriate use of cultural heritage content by educating those who do not fully understand and appreciate its cultural, economic and spiritual value.
For example, the Inuit Heritage Trust came to IPinCH with concerns about how to protect its traditional clothing designs, specifically parkas, which were being sold by fashion designers.
“In this case the Inuit really had little legal recourse to stop it,” he said.
To help move beyond such limitations, IPinCH offers resources and support for both indigenous communities and academic researchers engaging in cultural heritage work, and also seeks to educate the general public.
“I think the great majority of people want to do the right thing in terms of respecting other people’s culture, but they do not know what the right thing to do is,” he said.
For researchers, going through multiple levels of ethics reviews, working through funding and legal logistics, as well as doing the actual work, takes longer with so many communities, researchers, universities and partnering organizations involved. But Nicholas believes it is worth it, when the result is an indigenous community retaining control over its own cultural affairs.
“This is really rewarding. It’s also very, very difficult to do,” said Nicholas.
IPinCH has several spinoff projects planned, including videos highlighting its findings, and a traditional licensing project to enable indigenous peoples to specify the level of access for materials they make available to the public. The project is also helping to train the next generation of researchers, having supported more than 65 students to date.