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Cultural appropriation: ‘It strips community’s identity, steals our economy’

By Reyivolü Rhakho Updated: Sep 01, 2021 12:18 am
Extract of stinging nettle bark being sun-dried. (EM Image)

Reyivolü Rhakho
Kohima, Aug. 31 (EMN):
Cultural appropriation can be distortive, distasteful and hurt the sentiments of a particular community as well as have huge economic implications on the affected party.

Speaking to Eastern Mirror, research scholar Sophy Lasuh observed that not acknowledging the right source could cost the copyright owner big, stating that ‘it strips the community’s identity and steals our economy’.

Referring to the recent controversy over the alleged misuse of stinging nettle-made textile that has Geographical Indication (GI) tag, she said “it impacts the economy of the weavers directly because it is not an imported thread like cotton, acrylic and polyester”.

Thebvo or stinging nettle is harvested, processed, hand-spun and made by the hands of the weavers. It does not, at any stage, come in contact with a machine, she said.
(Also read: Cultural appropriation stinging Naga society)

“Even one bundle of raw material that leaves the village creates an economic dent on the weavers’ income. If such is the economic impact, imagine what it does to our identity as a community? The loss cannot be weighed and measured!”, she asserted.

Assistant Professor at Kohima Law College and President of Nagaland Voluntary Consumers’ Organisation, Kezhokhoto Savi pointed out that Naga traditional designs or handicrafts for that matter were done with great difficulty in the past but non-Nagas can now produce so many things in no time by using machines.

‘But these are designs that have been passed on from one generation to another and we did not copy from the mainland,’ he said.

Community heritage shouldn’t be infringed

Criticising Indian designer Ritika Mittal, who had been accused of using IG-tagged Chakhesang textile for her Mora collection ‘without their consent’, Executive Director of Chakhesang Women Welfare Society (CWWS), Nezelu Nyekha said that “she cannot come and dictate the community”.

“We do not make any decision alone. All decisions are discussed and made collectively, so how can an outsider be so insensitive to us? Nobody has the right to use our indigenous textile and property without consent and without giving due credit,” she told this newspaper.

She further affirmed her commitment to protect and preserve the indigenous culture and traditions.

Member of the Chakhesang Traditional Attires Committee (CTAC) and former president of CWWS, Vechisalü Nukhu said that’ every design, pattern and motif in Naga traditional wear has its own significance and are embedded with meanings’.

‘Some traditional wears are also gender-based and status-based,’ she added.

She expressed concern over non-Nagas resorting to ‘cultural theft’ in the name of uplifting and promoting the Northeast as a whole.

President of CWWS, Dr. Vekutulu L Veyie also said, ‘Naga cultural prints and motifs are gender and tribe-specific, passed down from generation to generation. And for someone to misappropriate these patterns and motifs for their own selfish gain and profit is cultural exploitation and totally unacceptable’.

Kekhronguloü Kapfo, member of the CTAC, observed that Thebvo has been a traditional practice since time immemorial. ‘This practise needs to be revived and the society has to work towards revival of the heritage. An outsider cannot come and dilute and exploit the traditional textile nor change the indigenous names,’ she said.

“We all need to know and understand that we cannot afford to lose our community’s heritage,” she added.

Former Executive Director of CWWS, Vechülo-ü Kanuo said, “We are not here to fight anybody, but for the promotion, preservation and protection of our traditional and indigenous attires given to us by our forefathers”.

“We are not stopping anybody from using our traditional textile, but it should be used in the right way. This is not about being rigid, but to safeguard our traditional heritage from being misused because our traditional textiles are linked to our history and identity. We welcome all our young entrepreneurs, designers and weavers to use our textiles and promote it in the right and legal way,” she added.

Legal point of view

Dr. Nesatalü Hiese, Patent Information Centre, Nagaland Science and Technology Council, observed that “cultural appropriation is rampant. This is where Intellectual Property Rights play a very important role in safeguarding the cultural heritage,” she said.

To have legal protection, one should take custody of its cultural heritage by Geographical Indication (GI) filing, copyright etc., she advised.

“When there is cultural appropriation, with or without GI, the indigenous community has every right to stop or say ‘no’ in misuse or exploitation of indigenous textile and fight for what rightfully belongs to them. There should not be any infringement on the community’s heritage,” Hiese added.

Kezhokhoto Savi also said that the key to protecting one’s textile or design was “awareness of legal provisions and procedures”.

The first step is to educate the people about basic procedures as that knowledge will help them learn to protect their design, original works or traditional textiles, he said.

‘Talking about the procedures of registration, copyright, label and trademark without educating them will create more confusion. That is why, it is more important to create awareness and educate the society so that people can protect their tradition and design,’ he maintained.

‘One should register with competent authority by way of label or trademark etc. because, this kind of design is a subject to do with labels and comes under Intellectual Property Rights,’ he continued.

The assistant professor said that ‘one will hold the ownership’ of a particular item once it is registered with a competent authority.

“We are to register a label so that we own the label as our design and we can sue others who copy us without our consent or permission,” he pointed out.

He went on to say that people shouldn’t remain silent when traditional items are misused, irrespective of whether they are labelled.

‘When outsiders (non-Nagas) display Naga traditional attires in a silly manner or in a very disrespectful manner, people must raise their voice against such things,’ he added.

By Reyivolü Rhakho Updated: Sep 01, 2021 12:18:14 am