Protecting Tribal Stories: The Perils of Propertization

As any New Age shaman – and many grave robbers – can tell you, Indians are hot. As appreciation of traditional Native American cultures has grown over the last few decades, so too has the market in objects and experiences thought to express those cultures.1 To the extent that it indicates respect for Native American tribes and individuals and offers them a chance to profit in the market, this development has been embraced. When a Paiute basket can sell for $25,675 and a Navajo serape for $107,375,2 opportunities for Native artists to make a comfortable living exist.

Many Native Americans, however, view the continuing popularity of all things “Indian” with more than a little skepticism.3 The problems cluster around two distinct but related issues:

(1) Cheap imitation “Indian” crafts or services marketed by people who are not native or, in many cases, even Americans undercut authentic tribal artists.4

(2) According to many Indian artists and leaders, sacred aspects of traditional Indian cultures should not be sold commercially. Here the concern is not with lost profit, but with lost meaning. It is a cultural harm rather than financial harm.5

One scholar refers to these two sets of concerns as “realist” and “traditionalist.”6 The so-called “realists” acknowledge the tribes’ partial assimilation into the world market and seek to prosper within that system by exploiting the niches carved for Indians by the dominant culture’s laws and the opportunities created by the free market. This group believes that the circulation of cultural property is inevitable, so Indians may as well stake out as much of the profits of such circulation as possible.7 The traditionalists, meanwhile, are less concerned with money flowing in than with meaning flowing out. They fear that commercial exploitation of traditional symbols, images, stories and ceremonies may drain or dilute traditional cultural resources.8