Reading Cultural (Mis)Appropriation Through the Lens of the Nagas

The talk deliberated on important questions such as: what is culture? How does one traverse through the blurry lines of cultural appropriation and appreciation? What are the legal protection and measures on cultural heritage and its re-appropriation?

With several factors ranging from social media to creative artists and developmental projects converging to make accessible what was once considered a unique, isolated and sacred practice, cultural appropriation has become a pressing issue than ever. The onslaught of cultural appropriation across the globe has put into perspective the relevance and relationship between the concept of culture, identity, and its derivative system of power in any given community. It is, therefore, imperative to have a nuanced and informed understanding of the inherent characteristics of culture and its intrinsic ties with the customary laws and practices while analyzing the subject matter of cultural appropriation. Acts of representations under the garb of aesthetic expression and economic proliferation require serious intervention today. As the infiltration from the outside tends to coincide with insiders’ acts of cultural appropriation and their own lack of informed evaluation, it mandates one to inquire for an understanding and clarity by navigating through these complicated terrains especially, in the Naga context.

Taking cognizance of the need to sensitize and amplify this critical discourse, the Naga Scholars’ Association (NSA) organized its November-monthly talk on the topic, “Interrogating Cultural (Mis)Appropriation in the Context of the Nagas” on 27th November 2021 through a virtual platform. The talk deliberated on important questions such as: what is culture? How does one traverse through the blurry lines of cultural appropriation and appreciation? What are the legal protection and measures on cultural heritage and its re-appropriation? Dr. Nesatalu Hiese, the Senior Scientist at Nagaland Science & Technology Council under the Department of Science & Technology, and person-in-charge of Patent Information Centre of the state; and, Sophy Lasuh, a filmmaker and research scholar from Nagaland, were the invited speakers for the talk. Dr. Avitoli G. Zhimo, an Associate Professor from the Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, chaired the session. 

It is apt to invoke James O Young’s observation that interrogation of cultural appropriation stands on the premise that a particular community is being wronged. And the need to distinguish the conditions which permeate it as wrong becomes crucial. In Naga culture where, as Dr. Zhimo rightly remarked, “indigenous knowledge is the collective property of the community,” the consideration of the consent of the members is emphasized when the knowledge is disseminated to outsiders. The recent wrangling in Nagaland between certain developmental bodies and the tribal organizations corroborates the apprehension that the cultural heritage of the Nagas is in a state of extreme vulnerability from infringement. This unfortunate fiasco invariably points to the urgency of engaging in ethical inquiries on how an insider has represented one’s culture to the non-Nagas, or where and how did the latter acquire the indigenous knowledge.

For her presentation, Lasuh began by elucidating what constitutes cultural appropriation vis-a-vis cultural appreciation. Citing the international storm over the cornrows as a case about cultural appropriation, she underlined how the “Bo Braid” controversy linked with the cornrows testifies to the undermining of racial identity and history of the African-American and their African heritage to the point of blatantly reducing it to a meaningless pop cultural hairstyle. Cultural appreciation, on the contrary, would entail recognizing and acknowledging the due ownership of people from whom the practices are being borrowed. Capturing the essence of the issues at hand through her cinematographic lens, she viewed that the recurrent phenomenon of cultural appropriation was due to the lack of understanding, the unwillingness of the dominant culture to study and learn the culture of the minority community. According to her, “What cornrows are to the Africans; textiles are to the Nagas”, and that “being an oral culture, we weave our identities, stories, our culture into our textiles,” and so “our textiles are not just a piece of cloth!” In fact, they are original handmade tapestries that document data and social rules bearing a living expression of the tribal knowledge system, its customs, values and culture. As someone invested in ethnographic film, traditional practice of weaving, and documentation of the nettle textile history of the Chakhesang community, Lasuh also shared about the levels of appropriations occurring singularly or simultaneously in the Chakhesang context; object appropriation, content appropriation and even subject appropriation are identified, giving evidence to the misuse of the tribal style and motif. Corollary to the acts of appropriation, as she noted, “involves taking, existence of power imbalance, absence of consent and presence of profit”.

Two controversial legal cases: the designer Ritu Beri collection row over showcasing of Naga shawls at Surajkund; and the Mora Collection, a spinoff of Chakhesang motif and design by Ritika Mittal, the designer and founder of MORA-Fashion Art, have amply signified the issue of cultural misappropriation in the context of the Nagas. The commodification of cultural works or cultural theft through coercion, deception and exploitation continue to drive any offended community into a reflective mode. To experience “being overwhelmed” by such flagrant acts has thrown light on the level of unpreparedness of the Naga community to articulately and resolutely defend and claim their cultural properties. This situation betrays the conviction of their obfuscated understanding towards what determines the culture of the community. Moreover, the contestation over the artistic freedom of expression looms largely over the mega state-funded festivals where external and internal cultural appropriation through ‘borrowed ideas without acknowledgment’ goes unexamined or unaddressed. As succinctly remarked by one of the members-audience, it “raises a critical question on how the people can seek to uphold the sacredness”.

Investigating the acts of cultural misappropriation inevitably raises important questions related to legal domains/matters. In this light, Dr. Hiese deliberated on critical questions such as: can a culture claim ownership over a work of art in the absence of an authenticated will or document? What are the legal provisions to claim ownership of one’s cultural intellectual property? The discussion included decoding the Indian legal system that addresses the protection of indigenous cultural heritage under Intellectual Property Right (IPR) and Geographical Indication (GI). Considering the challenges in formulating who owns what and how to (re)claim it through legal provision, emphasis was made on the significance of IPR and GI and its offshoots: Patents, Trademarks, Copyrights, etc, and their legal framework in safeguarding cultural works. In tandem with the customary laws, a close understanding of other legal protection was specified, as in the context of Nagaland state, “Article 371(A) and Customary Laws are not enough to protect our heritage because of its lack of legal binding.” The IPR and GI as informed tools can empower the wronged community to dislodge any counterclaim over cultural ownership rights as in the ongoing legal case of the Chakhesang Women Welfare Society (CWWS) filed against the MORA founder. Citing the Chakhesang community who got their GI registration in 2017 and is the first in Nagaland, the urgent need for the other Naga tribes to secure the GI was strongly recommended. Dr. Hiese concluded her deliberation by voicing that “When there is a cultural appropriation, with or without GI, the community has every right to fight for whatever belongs to them”.

With so much at stake, both speakers emphasized the need to initiate a cultural orientation platform supported by sensitization drive as the first corrective mechanism to facilitate the emergence of a robust collectivity of informed members. Given that cultural misrepresentation poses a severe threat at multiple levels, if timely recourse is not taken, it may have lasting ramifications on the cultural lifeworld. While cultural appreciation is a welcome gesture, it is crucial to draw a distinct line between cultural misappropriation and appreciation. More importantly, the urgency of the matter at hand cannot but behoove the Nagas, through inclusive involvement and collective responsibility, to thwart the invasive drive of both the benignly devised mechanism and overtly orchestrated drumbeat seeking to defile the sacredness that gives wholeness to the intrinsic cultural code of the Nagas.  

Ms. Elvina S Amongla, Finance Secretary, NSA.

Ms. Paveine Vemai, Executive Secretary, NSA. 

Naga Scholars’ Association

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