There are two assumptions here: first, that a thing like an idea, a story, a poem, a song, can be owned; the second that the creator should have control of it, any profit that comes from it. Most of us would accept these ideas: they are the basis of our copyright law. These assumptions give birth to the lawyer who specializes in “intellectual property.”
There is a third assumption: that a “culture” can “own” its ideas and practices. This one rather rests on another assumption which is what the government enforced when it created tribal governments: that a tribe is like a corporation that acts in its economic interests. In the case of marketing the culture, some rests on laws like NAGPRA or the law forbidding non-Indians from selling things labeled as Indian-made. Others, like stories about Indians rest on moral claims.
A major complication has been the theory coming out of the post-colonial academic world, very subtle and intellectual, claiming to reinterpret what has been written to show the hostile and destructive assumptions underneath. Some of it is well-deserved and very consciousness-raising and some of it verges on moonshine, including its tendency to get people drunk on indignation and resentment. College sophomores love it.
Still another gradient of inequality makes it possible for one kind of person (white, genteel, educated, well-connected) to come to a remote place (a reservation) and acquire a lot of stories, information and opinions from a relatively obscure culture, and then write them up to sell to the curious. (Grinnell, Linderman, McClintock) On the one hand, everyone finds these books intriguing and innocent. On the other hand, it’s rather like having a series of affairs and then using them in novels. I mean, these men (mostly they are men) do not settle down on the reservation to live and be part of the community.
Where to start? Probably as usual the nineteenth century. Anthropology at the time thought that “primitive” people were vanishing from the planet (like songbirds today) and that the proper response was to rush to record all about them. No necessity to tell them they were doomed, no necessity to intervene in their lives, just collect as much information and as many objects as possible so that they will be preserved in history. But they didn’t disappear. It took them a long time to get curious about what all these anthros were writing -- getting PAID to write, getting FAMOUS to write -- without ever bringing it back to the People to read.
The result was a kind of cult of the 19th century Indian that seized the minds of many a boy. Schultz, Russell, and even Black Elk laid out the terms for a virtual time and place that has never really existed but refuses to go away to make room for reality. Some Germans and French are obsessed with this world and rock stars like Sting try to recreate the experience with South American tribes. Again, on the one hand there are good results like visions of beauty and adventure and the powerful reminder “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee,” over against generations of repetitious re-enactments of Manifest Destiny. Over and over when one goes to exhibits of Western art or reads pulp Westerns, there are no Native American patrons or practitioners. Occasionally one is brought “onstage” in a show of authenticity. And there are exceptions, like Oreland Joe who quietly took Cowboy Artists of America by storm.
Lisa Mittens and a group called Oyate have tried to point out that popular books like “The Indian in the Cupboard” make a real person into a little toy, contributing to the whole idea that animals/Indians are for children and should not be taken seriously as “real.” Likewise “The Education of Little Tree” enjoys enormous popularity because it is so sentimentally confirming of Disneyesque ideas while at the same time “Stay Away, Joe” is admired because of slapstick portrayals of drunks and traumatized veterans. Then along comes someone who points out that all three of these books are written by white people, so authors with tribal credentials become popular (Welch, Erdrich, Silko) but they are attacked as insufficiently “Indian” and the search is on for enrollment records.
A good illustration of confusion is “Dances with Wolves,” which local Blackfeet people craving respect so greatly admired that Heart Butte took the entire school on buses to Great Falls to see the movie. REAL Indians speaking REAL Indian language, honorable family people doing their best. Then Sioux-speakers got the giggles because the female language coach had taught the male heroes to use female locutions. And some other spoilsport pointed out that the story is really about two white people who just happened to be hanging out with Indians. Indeed, the dilemma is like a love affair where one person hates to destroy the illusion the other has of their perfection, but unless reality is reached, there can be no real relationship.
Once again, the split of the Other takes over. The high regard of the romantic 19th century vision gets pitted against the Peace Corps notion of a people that need saving by outsiders. No one consults actual people in real places. The universal human dilemmas of poverty, disability, disease and prejudice are displaced by a claim that THIS population suffers more than any other. Which means better sales. And special privileges. And government and foundation grants and subsidies. All of which are distractions from the simple fact that this political entity we call our nation seized the lands of the authochthonous peoples, making binding treaty promises in return.
Truth in advertising requires, though it will be used against me, that I disclose my first hand knowledge of these matters. First, I was married to Bob Scriver who was from a mercantile family on the Blackfeet Reservation which accumulated a collection of artifacts that were sold to the Royal Museum of Alberta in Edmonton, creating a huge scandal. Second, while married to Bob I participated in old time Bundle ceremonies with 19th century Blackfeet, not their grandchildren.
Third, I co-write with Tim Barrus who was targeted by Sherman Alexie as a wannabe who used a Navajo writing persona (as distinguished from going around town declaring himself Navajo) and then used that persona to imitate Alexie’s writing. In my judgment and the judgment of lawyers investigating the possibility of a lawsuit, the events in Barrus’ Nasdijj books are nothing like events in Alexie’s books (unless I missed the ones in which Alexie claimed to be a victim of sexual abuse, to be a migrant worker, to have been beaten by his father, to have been a whore or to help boys with HIV). Also, Alexie’s wry stand-up-comedian writing style is nothing like the emotional extravagance and bitter social conscience of Barrus. These sorts of feuds are supposed to whip up indignation that will increase sales. In fact, there is so much acrimony now associated with Native American writing that publishers and producers are inclined to just wave it all on as way too much trouble. The new Indian in the cupboard is from Pakistan.