Trademarks as protection of Alaska Native art and culture

Appropriation of indigenous peoples’ art and culture: it’s something that’s been happening for decades, if not centuries, and that still happens even today. Those imitations can threaten not only the integrity of the culture whose art is appropriated, but at times, even that culture’s survival.

At a late February talk at Sealaska Heritage Institute, Jacob Adams, a visiting scholar from Norway, had a possible solution: trademarks, which he said are one of the best mechanisms for protecting indigenous cultural heritage.

SHI president Rosita Worl opened the lecture by saying, “we own our at.óow, we own our crests, our name, our stories, our songs and in the past, in our traditional culture, we had laws that protected our ownership… We are really left without a mechanism to protect our cultural ownership…of our property. We’ve been exploring how we could do that.”

Around the time of the establishment of the Indians Arts and Craft Act of 1935, Adams said, the market was flooded with low-cost, factory-made imitations of Native art. Even though consumers wanted to buy authentic pieces, it usually took an expert to tell one from the other.

Eighty years later, he said, “not much has changed.”

Adams said a study conducted in 2011 showed that there are no good estimates about the size of the national Native handicraft market, nor is there a comprehensive database, but said that a good indicator of its size is “how much non-authentic stuff is being sold.”

The Southeast Conference, Adams pointed out, found that Southeast Alaska artists generated $29.9 million in revenue in 2013. Twenty-three percent of the artists who responded to the organization’s survey identified as Alaska Native. On average, each artist was making about $13,000.

“That’s 64 percent higher profit than any of the other artists on average,” Adams said. “You can see it’s a significant portion of the arts community in Southeast but it’s also a significant part of the livelihood for the artists who responded as well.”

Problems come when imitation items take the place of authentic, especially when the imitation doesn’t respect the culture it’s imitating.

“There has to be a way of someone being involved in their cultural heritage when it comes to products, handicrafts…to make it a living and breathing entity,” Adams said. “Otherwise, it gets passed over to cheap imitations. If people can’t make a living making their traditional cultural heritage products… it just may be a dying art.”

Trademarks, which he defined as an indication of origin, come in multiple different forms. There are geographic identifiers (signifies origin), collective marks (membership to a group) or certification (showing it meets a group standard). The last two could protect Alaska Native artists’ livelihoods, the Native culture whose tradition they continue, and people who just want to buy authentic art.

“No one travels all the way up to Southeast Alaska or to where I live in northern Norway, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to buy fake stuff,” he said.

A trademark on an Alaska Native handicraft wouldn’t restrict work to traditional art frozen in time, but allow it to develop naturally, as a living culture does, he said.

“When you’re speaking about something like cultural heritage… it’s a very localized type of issue. There are some indigenous groups who really don’t mind artists and craftsmen and other people integrating their heritage into a broad local heritage for the majority of the population. There are some who are very protective of it. So there’s no way to draw a bright line around cultural appropriation. But every indigenous group I’ve spoken to still really demands cultural integrity.”

Adams emphasized how he can only inform people about trademarks and how they generally might be used. The decision about whether to use them or not is up to each group.

“It’s not for someone like me to come in and say this is how you do it… The structure is there,” Adams said. “How you use it is up to you, or up to the people who want to implement it…The only way anything will change is if the people care to do it enough themselves.”

During the question and answer session at the of the lecture, several people from the crowd spoke about their own experiences as Alaska Native artists, or how, for example, a family song is sung without their consent.

Adams will be a visiting scholar at SHI through April. He’ll interview Alaska Native artists who make artwork for their clan or for sale, discussing those findings at a later lecture.


• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at

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