Several years ago I listened to a radio interview that was broadcast on National Native News, a regular program on NPR. The program addresses issues of importance to North American Indians, particularly those in the USA and Canada. The woman being interviewed, whose name and tribal affiliation I cannot now recall, was a writer and activist. She was expressing indignation over non-Indian authors who write about Indian characters and themes. I tuned into the interview in the middle, but it seemed to me she was referring to writers like Tony Hillerman, many of whose excellent mystery novels take place on the Navajo Indian reservation, and whose primary characters are Navajo. She took the position that Indian culture and issues are the exclusive domain of Indians, and that a non-Indian has no business intruding. This started me thinking in terms of cultures in general, and the issue of what I will call "cultural property".
My initial reaction to the interview was amused wonder - sort of the feeling inspired by statements like that of another cultural isolationist, Texas Governor James Ferguson, who in 1917 vetoed an appropriations bill for foreign language education in the public schools. "If English was good enough for Jesus," he averred, "it's good enough for the school children of Texas!" How far could one extend such a stance? Should James Fenimore Cooper not have written his "Leatherstocking Tales" (which includes "Last of the Mohicans"), nor Charles Dickens "A Tale of Two Cities"? Did Kipling trespass when he penned "The Jungle Books", or Pearl Buck with her novels of China, or Baroness Blixen with "Out of Africa"? Not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars" (all right, so the Martians haven't complained, but you get my drift)! And should this attitude also apply to language? Was Fitzgerald improper in translating "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"? Should it apply to the past, as in Graves' "I Claudius", or are dead cultures fair game? The list is huge, and I cannot think that humanity would have profited by their loss.
Despite her stance, the woman being interviewed seemed articulate and reasonably intelligent, and could hardly have been unaware of such objections. Moreover, the idea of cultural property is not confined to writing:
At a time when there is a considerable movement to celebrate cultural diversity, there seems to be a corresponding desire to isolate ourselves into cultural domains. Partly, this is the result of a natural pride in our origins and background. Less worthily, the impulse represents a desire to feel superior to people we don't fully understand, and consequently fear. I would argue that the value of diversity is sharing. From my perspective as an American with Irish ancestry, I am accustomed to people of different cultural origins drawing freely on the lore of my forebears, and have no ill feeling about it whatever. To the contrary, I am often (perhaps unreasonably) proud that people feel highly enough about my cultural background to borrow from it. I can't help but feel that all of human experience, regardless of cultural origin, is and should be common property.
- On a morning news show I saw a young woman who was appalled by a current fashion among white teens in aping the styles, music, language, and mannerisms of black teens. Her objections were based on the idea that these were African-American cultural property, and should be kept separate. To me, it sounded like cultural apartheid.
- An archaeologist presented arguments and evidence that certain pre-Columbian Indians in the southwest US practiced ritual cannibalism. While a few of the opposing arguments presented in the media disputed the evidence and reasoning, most were based on the idea that such a theory was deeply offensive to American Indians, and should therefore not be presented. What amazed me most was that such an intellectually dishonest point of view could actually be taken seriously. Secondly, I had a hard time with the emotional reaction - my ancestors had the habit of burning their enemies alive in wicker cages, but I hardly take that fact as a reflection on my character, or that of my family. On consideration it occurred to me the notion that descendents are responsible for the misdeeds of their forbears is not uncommon, and is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is also the basis for many minority claims against the US government; so the viewpoint should not, perhaps, be all that surprising.
- A friend interested in Hindu religions told me of his dismay when an East Indian acquaintance took him severely to task for exploring the subject at all. He argued that, not having grown up in the culture, my friend could never truly understand what the religion would mean to an individual of that culture. For this reason, any understanding of Hindu religion my friend might gain would be fatally flawed and distorted. This is an arguable point, though I don't believe the situation is nearly that extreme; in any case, it seems a poor argument for not trying.