Legal and Policy Issues
Edited by Christoph Beat Graber, Karolina Kuprecht and Jessica Christine Lai
Chapter 13: A United States perspective on the protection of indigenous cultural heritage
There is no way to place a precise value on the knowledge and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples of the United States. There are, however, a few data points that suggest how enormous that value could be. In 1997, the United States Department of Commerce indicated that Indian arts and crafts were generating US$1.2 billion in gross revenue. In 2003, a professor at the University of Hawaii proposed licensing the Hawaiian genome as the intellectual property of the Hawaiian people, pointing out that the great population loss that occurred among Native Hawaiians in the nineteenth century made them an unusually homogenous group, and therefore valuable for scientific research. A pharmaceutical company had paid US$200 million for rights to the Icelandic genome, which underwent a similar demographic experience. The temptations to appropriate and commercialise that knowledge are undeniable. Money is not the only measure of value for indigenous heritage, however. Many indigenous groups resist commercialisation, preferring that at least some of their traditional knowledge and heritage remain secret, or at least reserved for internal cultural uses.
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