Skip navigation

Project seeks to answer issues of cultural heritage


In August 1999, hunters traveling along a glacier edge in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in British Columbia found the frozen remains of a young man. With him were a woven hat, the remnants of a squirrel robe, some tools and a medicine pouch. The glacier fell within the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, whose members decided they should learn more about this potential ancestor.

Within days of the discovery, First Nations representatives and scientists established a close collaboration which has continued to this day and led to more than 20 scientific and cultural studies. Radiocarbon dating showed Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi (Long Ago Person Found) died between 1670 and 1850, and an analysis of plant remains, pollen and fish scales provided clues about the environment at the time. As well, just this past April, researchers made the startling announcement that they’d identified 17 living relatives of the man using mitochondrial DNA samples.

But not everything about Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi was made public. In deference to First Nations’ concerns, no photos of the body were released and the remains were dealt with quietly. Nor was his personal medicine pouch, considered sacred to the local Tutchone culture, studied. “It would have been an offence to open the pouch,” says Sheila Greer, an anthropologist working for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

“The Champagne-Aishihik and the provincial organizations figured out how they could work together in ways that were meaningful and the decision-making process was shared,” says George Nicholas, an archeology professor at Simon Fraser University. “But that is uncommon, unfortunately. Too often it’s not a true collaboration.”

Until recently, cultural property rights dealt with tangible property and materials – remains and artifacts. But increasingly, issues over intellectual property in cultural heritage – such as bio-prospecting, the appropriation of images, and DNA and blood sampling – are gaining attention.

Dr. Nicholas has embarked upon a seven-year project that will look at many of the issues that put indigenous peoples and scholars at odds. He is the study leader of the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage project (iPinCH), which recently secured $2.5 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and another $4 million from SFU and its partner universities and organizations. Multidisciplinary and international in scope, iPinCH has engaged archeologists, anthropologists, lawyers, indigenous organizations, ethicists and heritage experts from Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

The group will develop 20 community-based case studies (including Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi) to explore the issues of IP and cultural heritage, and document the diversity of principles, perspectives and responses that arise. The community-based approach is critical to making the work relevant, says Dr. Nicholas. “We have to find out what the issues are instead of deciding what they are.”

Themed working groups will study potential points of conflict, how and why conflicts develop, and come up with best practices to encourage more fair and equitable uses of information. Bio-archeology and the use of genetic data, cultural tourism, appropriation of images, stories and other traditional knowledge are among the themes the project will explore.

“A lot of these issues seem to be about control,” says Julie Hollowell, a cultural anthropologist and visiting scholar at DePauw University in Indiana. “In terms of genetics, it boils down to making sure that the source community has control over future uses of the samples, and that the research is going to benefit them in some way.”

The project will also develop a searchable archive that will house bibliographies, links to scholarly and popular articles, legislation, case studies and research protocols. “With tools to assist us, I have a sense that we’re going to reach a higher standard of real collaboration or partnership,” says Kelly Bannister, an ethno-botanist from the University of Victoria. “Better processes can lead to better science, and because the sharing will be in a climate of trust, the exchanges may be more deep and meaningful.”

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *