Indigenous Activists Are Working To Get the UN To Ban Cultural Appropriation

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

This week, delegates from 189 different countries came together for a special meeting of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization. The reason: to try to hash out legal ramifications for the use of imagery and other expressions of indigenous culture. That’s right, they’re working to make cultural appropriation illegal.


As the CBC reported, the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Folklore is meeting for its 34th session this week, attempting to lock down “effective protection” of indigenous culture and combat the exploitation of indigenous intellectual property and patents. This being the UN, things have taken a while: the committee has actually been working on a document specifically meant to protect indigenous intellectual property for the last 16 years.

James Anaya, dean of law at the University of Colorado, told the committee that the document they’re working on should “obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions.”


Anaya also suggested the document pay attention to products that are “falsely advertised” as either made by indigenous nations or signed off by them. This is actually prohibited in the U.S. by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which renders it illegal to sell a product that falsely suggests it was made or produced by indigenous people. It covers both traditional and contemporary indigenous art.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Cultural misappropriation has been an increasingly serious issue in the fashion world, where the use of indigenous designs and prints without permission or acknowledgment has become commonplace. A shining example of this sort of transgression would be Urban Outfitters’ infamous Navajo line, which included “Navajo hipster panties,” and a “Navajo print flask,” among other things. The Navajo Nation, which has registered several trademarks on their name, sued Urban Outfitters over trademark violations and violations of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act back in 2012. The case was settled out of court in November of last year.

Just last week, Tory Burch came under fire for selling a coat (initially described as African-inspired) that is nearly identical to a traditional early 1900s Romanian coat on display at the Met’s Costume Institute.


At 2015’s Milan Fashion Week, DSquared2 showcased a horrific “Dsquaw” line. KTZ’s designs from 2015 New York Fashion Week were directly lifted from various indigenous cultures and people, including designer Bethany Yellowtail. Isabel Marant was called out for copping indigenous Mexican designs in one of her collections. And who could forget 2012’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, where Karlie Kloss (who participated in a yellowface photoshoot for Vogue just months ago), strutted down the runway in a traditional headdress and suede, turquoise-encrusted animal print lingerie.

While it’s unclear as to when the the WIPO document will be finalized, it also begs the question of whether or not these designers could be charged with a crime, and how much the document will address designers who claim “inspiration” or “appreciation” as their noble savage-drenched thinly veiled excuses for theft.

Isha is a staff reporter who covers pop culture, representation in media, and your new faves.

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