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EM Exclusive, Nagaland

Cultural appropriation stinging Naga society

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By Reyivolü Rhakho Updated: Aug 31, 2021 12:30 am
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Shawl made out of stinging nettle bark on display. (EM Images)

Reyivolü Rhakho
Kohima, Aug. 30 (EMN):
Stinging nettle-made clothes don’t sting but cultural appropriation does. While there are some Naga communities who still keep this age-old tradition of transforming its bark into a beautiful piece of cloth alive, though a laborious process, there are also allegations of non-Nagas misusing it ‘without consent and correct attribution’.

Just days after the Chakhesang Women Welfare Society (CWWS) had accused Indian designer Ritika Mittal of using Chakhesang textile for her Mora collection ‘without their consent and correct attribution’, Nagaland Handloom and Handicraft Development Corporation Ltd. denounced Indian chain store FabIndia for allegedly using “Naga prints” without permission and inappropriately.

However, these appeared to be not isolated cases as Naga traditional attires, textiles, motifs, designs etc. were said to have been misused in the past as well.

Eastern Mirror spoke to some intellectuals and civil society organisation leaders to look at this issue from social, legal and economic point of view.

Assistant professor at Kohima Law College and President of Nagaland Voluntary Consumers’ Organisation, Kezhokhoto Savi said that cultural appropriation has been a matter of concern for a long time in the Naga society.

Terming it as a “big concern” he said that ‘we should not allow others to take our designs and make use of it for business purposes and in the way they like’.

Silence on the part of the society and lack of awareness on a whole, seemed to be giving others a free access to Naga cultural items.

“If we remain silent like this (on cultural appropriation issues), whatever design we have will be of no value. People will take it very lightly and make business out of it,” he added.

The professor went on to add that people should be grateful to groups or individuals who have been fighting against cultural appropriation as “they are not just fighting for one community but they are fighting for all of us”.

He also said that bringing about awareness among the people is needed to stop misuse of Naga cultural items.

CWWS, a community-based organisation that had set Chakhesang Traditional Attires Committee (CTAC) more than 25 years ago to preserve, promote, protect cultural and traditional heritage, also shared this newspaper about its experienced with cultural appropriation, lack of accreditation and how such matter had necessitated them to stand up and fight for what belonged to them.

In the past 15 years, CWWS was said to have experienced several instances of cultural appropriation, and in its efforts to uphold the responsibility shouldered upon them by the community, had tried to solve such issues amicably without resorting to legal action.

“It is regrettable that, even with such efforts put in, people still try to take credit for our community’s indigenous knowledge which existed even before they were born”, CWWS said.

The society, which has been trying to revive the tradition of nettle fibre-making that has been practised since time immemorial, also opened up on the recent issue with Mittal, who they had accused to using their textile without consent.

On this, the CWWS stated that “Mora has no right to claim anything. Thebvo (stinging nettle) is not a plant they brought into Phek district. It grows naturally in the wild and is indigenous to our land”.

It further claimed that it had come to their knowledge that before Mora collection and the North East Network (Mora’s facilitating partner) approached CWWS, the designer had already used Chakhesang shawls in her saris and marked as Mora copyright as though they are her original creations.

“We regret not knowing about her earlier exploits with our traditional designs and motifs and welcoming her with ignorance. Thebvo Project should have never been allowed to take place,” CWWS said.

“The knowledge around Thebvo has also been with our people. This is why you will find our community calling it by their own indigenous words like Thevo, Thebvo, Thebvuo, Sazu, Lusa, because it has always co-existed with us. This indigenous knowledge has always been with us and our community has used it for all textile purposes much before cotton was introduced. If Thebvo Project funded a project, does our forefathers intellectual property gets transferred to Mora? Mora should not be disillusioned about it,” it added.

CWWS got Geographical indication (GI) tag in October 2017 in order to safeguard the traditional textile. Therefore, any research or documentation, print or visual regarding the traditional textiles under GI tag cannot be carried out without permission from the society, it continued.

‘This implementation has become necessary because we cannot afford to waste so much time policing exploiters and intruders. Time, which can be given for other promotional and preservation activities, is being diverted for issues such as this. We will stand by our earlier judgement,’ CWWS maintained.

It may be mentioned that “cultural appropriation” means inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, cultural elements etc. by members of another society, especially from a dominant one.

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By Reyivolü Rhakho Updated: Aug 31, 2021 12:30:30 am