Indigenous Cultural Heritage Principles and Frameworks

This section includes more detailed information about the principles and frame works that inform and guide Indigenous cultural heritage work. An overview of this information is presented in the Getting Started with ICH Stewardship section of this toolkit.

Indigenous Cultural Heritage Stewardship and Indigenous Autonomy

ICH stewardship is when Indigenous people have control over their cultural heritage and how it is documented, used, accessed, shared and celebrated. ICH stewardship is an important assertion and practice of Indigenous sovereignty. It means that Indigenous peoples have control over their lives and the cultural components that are vital to who they are. ICH connects generations of Indigenous peoples to one another, as well as to their lands, language and ancestors. These connections are integral to cultural identities and directly translate into wellness and safety.

ICH stewardship is a management model and approach that is:

  • Grounded: Based on thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge and practices
  • Holistic: Recognizing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual connections
  • Cyclical: Based on what is relevant during each season of life
  • Relevant: Led by Indigenous people to address their current needs and priorities
  • Adaptive: Responsive to the changing needs of Indigenous peoples and the challenges they face

Indigenous Autonomy

Indigenous autonomy means that Indigenous peoples decide what is best for them. This includes ownership and control over all forms of ICH. It means that ICH-related processes must be led by Indigenous peoples, according to their own approaches and timelines.

The ownership of physical forms of ICH, such as cultural belongings and regalia, may be clearer because these belongings are tangible – you can hold them in your hands. However, all forms of ICH should be cared for and respected in the same way.

Indigenous autonomy is important because it prevents further harm caused by colonization. An example of this harm is an organization that includes ICH in art exhibits or business branding without the consent or leadership of the people the culture comes from.

Indigenous people alone are the leaders and owners of their cultural heritage. A simple example of autonomy is deciding what to eat for breakfast or choosing what you will wear for the day. More complex examples of autonomy are being able to choose to live in your traditional territory, having the choice to hunt your traditional foods, practise your traditional healing ways and deciding what the future will look like for your Nation.

What is an example of autonomy that is important to you? Your community? Your Nation?

Has your community considered what autonomy means in your specific context? What are the opportunities and challenges?

Indigenous Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights

Intellectual and cultural property includes Indigenous knowledge held collectively and by individuals.

Examples of Indigenous intellectual and cultural property

  • Songs
  • Stories
  • Laws
  • Language
  • Harvesting practices
  • Dance forms
  • Traditional medicines

Indigenous knowledge should be afforded the same respect, thought and consideration as physical heritage. As with other forms of ICH, Indigenous peoples have had their intellectual and cultural property rights disrespected and appropriated.

By determining specific protocols for engaging with all forms of Indigenous intellectual and cultural property and having a plan for Indigenous stewardship, communities can ensure that their rights are respected. In other words, they can ensure that their knowledge cannot be reproduced, suppressed, misused or taken without permission.

For example, there must be consent to include and record Indigenous intellectual and cultural property within:

Written documentationSome forms of Indigenous knowledge are meant to be passed on orally and possibly only shared with particular families or individuals. No person or organization from outside the Nation or family should share a written account of Indigenous knowledge without consent. Indigenous peoples sharing their own knowledge ensures that it is kept within its proper context and shared in respectful ways.
Audio and video recordingsMany communities have audio recordings of Elders, family members and ancestors sharing the language. When this form of ICH is shared by Indigenous people themselves, then family members can decide how it is used on behalf of the person who is speaking. As well, there may be nuances within the recording that could be misinterpreted if a person from the community is not involved.
Museum exhibitsThere is a long history of anthropologists creating museum displays from belongings stolen from Indigenous communities. After this harmful history, Indigenous autonomy is an important part of creating museum exhibits. Indigenous curators who care for their own Nation’s belongings is an example of autonomy.
Written Indigenous historyDocuments or interpretative signs that include written history from an Indigenous perspective are a form of intellectual property and should be developed with inclusion and/or leadership of Indigenous people.
Indigenous representationIndigenous peoples have experienced inaccurate representation and/or appropriation through film, pop culture and even contemporary fashion, which has shown Indigenous peoples as frozen in the past or in a pan-Indigenous way. Indigenous representation of ICH matters. When Indigenous peoples have autonomy to tell their stories, they are represented more accurately, in ways that empower their communities.

Key Lessons: Intellectual property

Indigenous intellectual property rights differ from Western legal notions of property rights because they:

  • Do not expire
  • Require caretaking from the collective (for example, family and/or Nation) instead of being owned by an individual
  • May apply to land-based knowledge (such as physical landmarks or transformation sites that the Western world does not recognize as heritage features)

For intellectual property rights, it’s a good idea to keep track of how intellectual property is being collected, stored and accessed. Release forms can be useful to control who, when and how Indigenous intellectual property is accessed by external parties, but the intellectual property owners must be able to access their knowledge at any time.

Indigenous Cultural Heritage Stewardship and Indigenous Rights

ICH stewardship honours the rights and responsibilities that Indigenous peoples have always had to engage with their cultures and lands and allows them to put these rights into action and reclaim their cultural identities. In this way, ICH stewardship addresses the injustices of the past and present that have disconnected Indigenous peoples from their lands, languages and cultures. It is a key component to reconciliation and contributes to cultural pride and healing.

ICH stewardship recognizes Indigenous people as the rightful stewards or caretakers of their ICH. This right is supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Below are some examples of what the TRC and UNDRIP have to say about ICH.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Calls to Action

#14: The preservation, revitalization, and strengthening of Aboriginal languages and cultures are best managed by Aboriginal people and communities.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

Article 11: Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

Article 31: Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the 23 right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.

Indigenous Cultural Heritage Stewardship and Indigenous Law

Indigenous governance and legal traditions have developed over thousands of years and change with every generation to adapt to contemporary contexts. These dynamic processes are enacted at the community level every day. ICH stewardship may be used to strengthen and enact Indigenous legal traditions that are negatively impacted by colonial processes.

Some of the ways that Indigenous legal traditions may be integrated into ICH stewardship include:

  • Writing your community’s legal traditions into ICH policies and/or laws
  • Educating industry about legal traditions so they work respectfully in your territory
  • Educating the public so they can educate others
  • Building relationships with other First Nations communities, municipalities, cultural resource management firms, government and industry
  • Engaging in community education to re-establish the traditional responsibilities for upholding and protecting laws and rights
  • Ensuring that legal traditions are understood and represented within different departments of your Nation, within family groups and among members of your community across the generations

Indigenous Legal Traditions

Indigenous legal traditions are longstanding values and processes that are grounded in the protocols of ancestors and that guide the lives of Indigenous peoples. They may be rooted in origin stories that share important teachings gifted from the spirit world. They are mutually agreed upon by members of a First Nation and act as a system of accountability and shared identity.

Some examples Indigenous legal traditions include:

  • How sacred sites and materials are cared for
  • How lands and resources are managed
  • How certain belongings relate to specific traditional protocols
  • The ways communities lead ceremonies
  • How work is carried out

Indigenous law

Most Indigenous peoples have legal traditions that are deeply connected to cultural protocols and set out fundamental principles for decision-making and governance. These traditions connect Indigenous people to their territory and cultural identity.

The Constitution of the Haida Nation is an example of Indigenous law – it is a written document that asserts the sovereignty of the Haida Nation and the Haida legal traditions.

The Gitxsan Ada’ox and Ayaaks (laws and oral histories) are a critical part of the Gitxsan hereditary system of governance. These laws are recorded in oral histories through the Feast system and set out specific principles and practices for clans and family groups that have been in existence for thousands of years. For example, the passing of a Chief’s name is a strategic decision that follows specific protocols and carries tremendous responsibilities.