South Island Prosperity Partnership’s Rising Economy 2022 conference included a panel discussion titled Indigenous Intellectual Property and the Story of the Cowichan/Salish Sweater. Skip to main content

Protecting Indigenous Intellectual Property

By December 16, 2022March 2nd, 2023No Comments
A panel discussion on Indigenous Intellectual Property focused on cultural appropriation, discussing the challenges and solutions for recognizing and protecting Indigenous intellectual property.

South Island Prosperity Partnership’s Rising Economy 2022 conference, held November 15 – 17 at the Songhees Wellness Centre, included a panel discussion titled Indigenous Intellectual Property and the Story of the Cowichan/Salish Sweater.

The session was moderated by IPC Executive Director Christina Clarke, featuring panelists Ron Rice, Executive Director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, Dr. Susanne Thiessen, Assistant Professor in Indigenous Community Development in the School of Public Administration at UVic (both members of the IPC Working Committee), Lou-ann Neel, Kwagiulth Artist & Arts Advocate, and Joni Olsen, member of the Tsartlip First Nation, policy analyst for W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, and co-owner of Salish Fusion Knitwear

It focused on cultural appropriation by non-Indigenous people and corporations of original designs, songs, artworks and products developed by Indigenous artists, discussing the challenges and solutions for recognizing and protecting Indigenous intellectual property.

You can watch the panel session on YouTube, and we’ve also distilled the key takeaways from that session here.

And you can see a short story about the Cowichan knitters here.

A short history of the Cowichan sweaters

The art of knitting was introduced by Scottish, Irish and English settlers and then mastered by blanket and basket weavers throughout Coast Salish territories, who incorporated family motifs and designs into the garments themselves – hence the iconic Cowichan sweater we know today.

While the sweaters have long been sought after, and were given as gifts to visiting heads of state, there is a long history of unfair practices, and exploitation with non-Indigenous dealers paying outrageously low prices, devaluing the talent and time taken to produce each sweater, toque, scarf or pair of mittens. In addition, knitters are often overcharged for materials, or shut out of wholesale pricing, meaning they often lost money on sales if you aggregated the talent and time it took to create the work with the cost of materials and the low price they received for their art.

In 2010 the Cowichan Tribes went public with the cultural appropriation of their famous sweater designs, replicated in merchandise developed by the Hudson’s Bay Company for the Olympics that year, without proper authorization or compensation.

Disrupting exploitation

The panelists referred to the example of Joni Olsen’s Salish Fusion Collective, a family business that took control of their own financial destiny by controlling not only the product they were using to make the garment but also the sale to the consumer. It was unusual to see this kind of control in the past, but it’s becoming more of a regular occurrence.

For those that rely on retail partners, the goal is to remove themselves from the tourist trinket market and connect with partners who understand and invest in the quality of the iconic, national garment that was once held in such high esteem it was gifted to heads of state and visiting royalty.

The Cowichan sweater shouldn’t be something tourists pick up for a bargain price at a low end, mass-produced tourist shop. It’s important to celebrate and elevate the handcrafted hand spun, meaningful garment that has become sacred for Coast Salish people.

Its knitters must earn a fair and livable wage and have constant and consistent access to a reliable wool source. And consumers need to understand that this is a meaningful purchase, one that needs to be cared for and can become a family heirloom.

There’s a lack of access to wool mills (the last one on the Island closed in 2007), which limits the use of wool from Island raised sheep. And knitters are still paying retail prices for products that aren’t always available on the Island, which reduces the profit they should be making. It’s time to disrupt that barrier as well.

 Assessing the barriers to Indigenous Intellectual Property rights

There’s a lack of sufficient copyright and intellectual property protection legislation in Canada. There are no regulations attached to the legislation that exists, so there are no repercussions for contravening them. There needs to be more advocacy work to lobby politicians for change. It’s time for them to understand that art and artists are an important component of a vital and vibrant economy, and to understand that art is business and often forms the backbone of Indigenous economies. Indigenous art is also an expression of cultural identity. Designs are passed down by the artists and some designs are owned by families.

Where consumers take advantage is in thinking, I bought your painting, why can’t I reproduce it on t-shirts and sell it for my own profit? Well, you didn’t buy the copyright, you just bought the item. The Department of Canadian heritage could play a role in informing citizens so they understand that there are very distinct lines around ownership versus usership.

There should also be conversations within each community around what intellectual property rights mean to those specific Nations. It’s different everywhere. There is no one size fits all legislation for all Nations. It’s complex and it will take a lot of work and discussion. 

What consumers can do to support Indigenous Intellectual Property rights

Always check that the name of the artist is attached to the work. Oftentimes there’s a tag attached, but look at the work itself, at who is producing it. Ask if the artist has a website or social media accounts that you can follow and view. The buyer should be able to look up the artist right there in the store and see if the artist is benefiting from the sale of their work.

Look for work that’s sold to the store directly by the artist, to ensure they are benefiting directly from the purchase. And look for galleries and stores that are owned by Indigenous people.

Also consider, if you like an artist’s work, buying directly from them if they have an online portal. Oftentimes they can also customize a work for you too.

Consumers can also do their research to understand what makes a Cowichan sweater unique – for example, if it is made by an Indigenous knitter it will have a drop sleeve. Buy directly from the knitter if you can, or if you’re buying from a store ask them who knit the sweaters – if they can’t tell you, perhaps they are not authentic.

There has been discussion, and some attempts, at a branding or tagging system that identifies Indigenous art as authentic and original and is a portal to a directory of artists, but that hasn’t had lasting success yet.

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