Friday, September 21, 2007

Cultural Equity, Indigenous Peoples, and Investing in World Heritage

Over the course of several posts (one, two, and three), I have been discussing the idea of “cultural equity,” primarily as the result of a collaborative effort with my colleague Victor over at the Music 000001 blog. He has largely focused his discussion on the topic of music, and especially how this plays in with the field of ethnomusicology. In turn, I have focused my end of the discussion on indigenous peoples and contemporary issues. Victor summarizes his argument as such: “What bothers me, however, as it did Lomax, is the tendency of the commodification process to promote a very narrowly defined and limited musical paradigm at the expense of all other types of musical expression, including the most traditional types associated with certain localized, regional, and/or indigenous cultures.”

This same process happens within the indigenous studies field. Certain groups vie for “indigenous” status – some with more credible claims than others – but because all are equally vocal about their “indigeneity,” there is no real way to tell who is more legitimate, if any. The problem, as I wrote about in an earlier post, is that this internal battle of indigeneity ends up harming all people irrespective of their “indigenous” status, at least in terms of cultural equity and social justice. The globalizing and imperial forces of the status quo are constantly looking for ways to deny any sort of “indigenous” status so that they do not have to grapple with this form of cultural mitigation. It took the United Nations 22 years to simply pass a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but still the countries with the largest indigenous populations – and thus the most responsibility – voted against the declaration. Why? So that they would not have to be bound by the Declaration, which would force them to honor the indigenous peoples in the country. Any infighting that takes place among indigenous peoples themselves is simply further fuel to deny indigenous peoples their basic cultural equity. What are to do then? How are we to support the cultural equity inherent in these discourses when there is not even a clear-cut definition or line for establishing who is indigenous or not? And once we face this conundrum, how are we to support this cultural equity?

Victor argues that we do not want to “preserve” these groups in our effort to allow for cultural equity, nor do we want to afford them more cultural equity than another. That would not only freeze the culture in time, but it would also afford them an undo position – a position that is based on a false hierarchy. No, we are trying to reach some level of cultural equity, not cultural hierarchy. Thus, we need to “protect” the rights and culture of these people as a form of equity, but not necessarily “preserve” them or their culture.

I like Victor’s take on this line of thinking: “If however, we see “cultural equity” as something in which we too hold a stake (i.e., equity), as a spiritual investment made by generations of ancestors, going all the way back to the beginnings of our species – which, if we are to believe the geneticists, does appear to have a common source, and, therefore, a common cultural heritage – then we cannot separate indigenous peoples off from ourselves in exotic and remote worlds of their own, but must see them as part of a dynamic ongoing process that concerns everyone now alive – and our descendants after us.”

What Victor and I have been arguing over these series of posts is that we – as humans – must respect other humans (and their cultures). It is as simple as that. By viewing indigenous peoples and their cultures as a form of cultural equity, we are no longer able to step outside of the situation. We must face up to the fact that the world is changing very, very fast, and that indigenous peoples and their cultures are slowly (some would say very rapidly) becoming lost in the overall homogenization of global culture. But what are we to do? We want to help preserve this cultural equity, not only for the next generation, but for the human species in general – it is our human lineage and must be celebrated, respected, and honored. I think Victor hit on the right take when he was talking about music: “Thus, we must emphasize the medium in which something is expressed, as opposed to the specific message of each individual utterance or tradition.”

This, I argue, is exactly right if we are looking at music, culture, and indigenous peoples from a cultural equity perspective. We want to help preserve the medium (culture), not necessarily the message (a particular culture per se). Everyday I get a report from someone asking me to help with some action item to help mitigate the impacts indigenous peoples are facing. I try my best, but at times it seems hopeless and never ending. What can I do, just one individual? Especially when one reads in the New York Times or some other newspaper how big multinational companies apparently get away with almost anything, as long as they pay the right officials and follow the right protocol. How can we help indigenous peoples in such a money/power oriented world order? Well, thanks to my dialogue with Victor, I have a new outlook – one that can allow me to continue to be an optimist in spite of the cynical news of the day.

We must each examine the medium of cultural equity, not its message. Essentialist claims of indigeneity are no longer valid. Nor are last ditch efforts that appeal to people’s hearts. I’m not advocating for one thing, one culture, one group of people. No, what I’m advocating for is the medium of culture, the medium of equity, the medium of indigenous.

Let us begin viewing our efforts in terms of cultural equity. Like they say on Wall Street, a diversified investment portfolio is your best plan of action for developing equity. Well, helping the medium of indigenous cultures is the best plan of action for developing the world’s equity. Let’s not only maintain a diversified investment portfolio, but also a world portfolio.

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1 comment:

Rogue said...

This discussion would not be if the European/North American gave everyone their land back. We will never know what would have come out of cultures in their own space and time, allowing for their own trajectory within time and space. We may or may not be in the particular place of hegemony that we find the entire world mired in today. However, to have access to your own resources and bases for production, for life and culture built around this material reality is to have power and self-determination over one's own future. A decree here and there from the same darn imperialist to honor what they don't care to honor is of no consolation to any indigenous community. Give me my land and my resources. Let the imperialists do the soul searching on their own accord. The oppressed peoples of the world need to unite and take back what has been stolen. Life was certainly much better than what the imperialist find compensatory living condition in these welfare programs, ghettoes and concentration camps they call reservations. How can people live with themselves and find justification that black and brown people across the globe suffer in similar fashion at the behest of these imperial forces. I understand where you are coming from but this would all take care of itself in a revolution by the oppressed masses. I am sure you are opposed to that. But it is the only way to redeem what we (the oppressed) have lost.

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