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Indigenous Cultures: Issue of Heritage & Ownership


Indigenous people, also known as First people or Aboriginal people, are the first owners or caretakers of a certain area, region, or even a continent. They inhabited the place before it was “discovered,” occupied, or colonized by other nations.

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One may readily imagine that intrusion does not allow for peaceful cohabitation, especially given that the voyages of discovery had the purpose of locating valuable natural resources and increasing influence. One of the issues plaguing First people’s communities is the lack of control over their cultural narrative. This essay argues that the “object” of representation needs to become a subject and find its own voice.

Commodification of Indigenous Nations

There are many ways in which a person can express themselves while focusing on their ethnic identity. However, the question arises as to whether all of those ways of self-expression are equally empowering or some of them are subjugation in disguise. Bunten builds a compelling argument on the ambivalent nature of so-called Native tourism (387). It is no secret that many people travel with the purpose of experiencing foreign cultures and maybe even trying to feel like a part of them. Native tourism allows them to learn more about First people by partaking in traditional activities, observing sacred ceremonies, and buying crafts. At first glance, the phenomenon seems to be positive: it draws attention to the minority cultures and let Native people run small businesses.

Upon further investigation, however, it turns out that there is a fine line between cultural representation and commodification, or rather self-commodification. Native culture is diverse and versatile – it is not comprised solely of beautiful works of art and exhilarating stories. It also bears takes of pain and suffering and reflects the most acute issues that an ethnicity is trying to overcome. However, tourists are rarely interested in “gloomy” matters – they want fun and entertainment.

Moreover, they do not expect Native culture to be diverse. Instead, an ordinary tourist wants a simplified trope that is consistent with their own understanding of what First people are like. Therefore, to be financially successful and socially accepted, Native people ignore a major part of their culture and themselves and turn the rest into commodity.

Property and Heritage

Another problematic aspect of Native people’s heritage is the legal protection of their rights to their content. Guy describes a system that she has encountered and to which she contributed, defending Taiwanese musicians’ authorship of their music. The author writes that the very nature of traditional music makes it challenging for legal workers to fit its protection in existing frameworks (200). Native people rarely record their own music – instead they prefer to pass songs and melodies down to younger generation orally. They rely on memory and tradition, which are the basis for their artistry’s survival.

However, younger generations often lean toward integration in modern societies and may be negligent of what elders have to offer. Therefore, it is only natural that researchers try to save the heritage by making records. Despite the mostly benevolent intentions, another issue occurs: whoever records music becomes its owner. It has direct implications for the actual creators: they are practically stripped off any rights to it and cannot make a profit.

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Indigenous People as Independent Creators: Controlling the Narrative

The question arises as to exactly how First nations can use self-expression to empower themselves. It seems that it is only possible if they take control of the narrative and find their own voice. This will help Native people to overcome the aforementioned problems – commodification and ownership. Content focusing on an ethnic minority’s culture should represent the said ethnicity as multidimensional and multifaceted. Moreover, the creators should be able to monetize it as they see fit.

A prime example of such content is a 1994 movie Once We Were Warriors. Directed by Tamahoree, Once We Were Warriors shows a struggling Maori family that is not able to overcome the issues of domestic violence and alcohol addiction. The movie was critically appraised and received positive reviews, highlighting the bravery of the director in revealing the truth. For example, Tamahoree exposes the toxic gender dynamics in Maori culture by depicting the family patriarch ordering his wife around and being violent with her. Once We Were Warriors successfully reached many goals at once: representing the culture from different angles, drawing attention to the issue, and letting Native people themselves reflect on their lives.


It appears that not a single indigenous nation did not suffer at the hands of intruders – their peace was disrupted and their identity erased. The cruel power dynamics of the past have made it to this day and age – today, indigenous people all over the world still face discrimination. For centuries, the dominant ethnic or racial group was in charge of indigenous people’s representation in literature and other media.

Today, the situation has changed but not exactly for the best. Some Native people prefer to commodify their culture to make a profit, which simplifies its perception by outsiders. Other struggle with ownership of their art and the legal complexity of the issue. It appears that the only way to save and create Native heritage is through transforming the power dynamics and encouraging Native people to be in control of the narrative.

Works Cited

Bunten, Alexis Celeste. “Sharing Culture or Selling Out? Developing the Commodified Persona in the Heritage Industry.” American Ethnologist, vol. 35, no. 3, 2008, pp. 380-395.

Guy, Nancy. “Trafficking in Taiwan Aboriginal Voices.” Handle with Care: Ownership and Control of Ethnographic Materials, edited by Sjoerd R. Jaarsma, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002, pp. 195-209.

Once We Were Warriors. Directed by Lee Tamahoree, performances by Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, and Cliff Curtis, Fine Line Features, 1994.

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