Indigenous stories and non-Indigenous writers: some reflections on respect and process
I sat down to write this post a while ago; during the course of writing it, author JK Rowling released a story that inappropriately incorporates aspects of the cultures of the Indigenous peoples of North America. I have spent much of the last couple of days listening to Indigenous peoples from across the sea give voice to their distress. So before I begin speaking of process and respect in an Australian context, it seemed only right that I acknowledge those voices, and encourage everyone to read their words.
This is the second of two posts; the first examined myths caused by misdiagnosing a lack of diversity in literature as a diversity problem rather than as a privilege problem. The purpose of this second post is to reflect on a few of the issues surrounding non-Indigenous writers and Indigenous stories in Australia. In the 1980s, Indigenous publisher Magabala Books was established in part because of the retelling of Indigenous narratives by non-Indigenous writers in circumstances where there was no free, prior and informed consent from – or any sharing of copyright or benefits with – the Indigenous knowledge-holders. While it has become less ‘business as usual’ in Australia to see books published in this way, it still happens. I’m sometimes asked what I think about it. My view is that non-Indigenous writers should not be telling cultural narratives unless it is done in equitable partnership with the relevant Indigenous knowledge-holders. And for a partnership to be equitable, I think it requires that royalties and copyright be shared. An example of such a collaboration is the one between non-Indigenous historian Howard Pederson and Bunuba man Banjo Woorunmurra for the book Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (copyright and royalties are shared between Howard Pederson and the Bunuba people). Further, there are some stories where copyright should remain entirely with the Indigenous person or people. Whether this is the case is something for the relevant Indigenous person or community to determine – but that decision has to be made free from pressure; prior to a project commencing: and on an informed basis. For example, the copyright in Woman from No Where – the biography of the late Hazel McKeller – is held by Hazel (and now her heir). Non-Indigenous academic Kerry McCallum, who worked with Hazel on the book, has her contribution credited on the cover. The process for writing this book is discussed in More than Words – Writing, Indigenous culture and copyright in Australia (a paper written by Murri lawyer Terri Janke).
Another topic I’ve been asked about is the use of Indigenous advisors or beta readers. To begin with, I think the Indigenous person should be paid at a rate that acknowledges the value of their time and expertise. The expectations (on both sides) and boundaries of the relationship also need to be clearly established from the beginning of the process. In the United States, there have been instances where the advice of expert readers was ignored or used selectively. And there is a larger consideration here, which is this: when does an Indigenous advisor or beta reader become a co-author? When do they become such an influence on the story that their contribution should be acknowledged through a share in the copyright and royalties? This is especially the case where the Indigenous input relates to culture, because the incorporation of Indigenous culture into books by non-Indigenous writers is fraught with cultural appropriation issues. The massive imbalance of power between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples precludes any notion of cultural exchange (which requires equality), and the vulnerable position of Indigenous peoples is exacerbated by the lack of protection for Indigenous knowledge and cultural expressions under Western intellectual property laws.
I’ve sometimes been told by writers that their inappropriate use of Indigenous material is justified on the basis that it is part of the Western literary tradition to ‘borrow’ stories or cultural elements from elsewhere, to which I reply: But you’re not writing about your culture or traditions. You’re writing about mine – and my culture has rules about when and how stories can be told, and who can tell them. And if non-Indigenous authors are writing about us because they care about Indigenous culture (as many tell me they do), then I think they should respect it enough to know when it is not their place to speak, and what it is not their place to speak about. This is especially so given that Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalised peoples on earth; that our cultures have been subject to sustained efforts to destroy them; that we continue to experience discrimination; and that our living traditions are our lifeblood. Appropriation of Indigenous cultures and stories causes real harm to real people – and we have already been harmed enough.
We live in the age of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to our cultures, heritage and languages (Articles 11, 12 and 13). Extensive past problems with the misuse of (and lack of protection for) Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property has resulted in the production of numerous protocols and guidelines, including the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ethical research guidelines and ethical publishing guidelines, and the Australia Council for the Arts Protocols for producing Indigenous writing.
And yet I have talked to non-Indigenous authors who have read all those guidelines and still believe that their use of Indigenous material is acceptable provided they acknowledge the relevant people, with issues of benefits-sharing and ownership being ignored.
And yet I have talked to publishers who believe that consent to the use of cultural material is purely the responsibility of the non-Indigenous writer, and that the publisher has no obligation to ensure that consent was given on a free, prior and (especially) informed basis.
And yet I am often asked by writers why they can’t do something when they’ve seen another non-Indigenous author do it – and the book they are referring me to is ten, twenty, thirty or forty years old. The world has changed, and what was done in an era where understandings were more limited is not a guide to what should be done now.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She works at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and is the author of a number of picture books as well as the YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe.