Let’s stop enabling cultural theft

The word ‘enabler’ began to be used with a negative connotation in the 80s and 90s. In those days our society was struggling with alcohol abuse and drug abuse, the latter being new on the horizon. Parents did not know how to deal with drug addiction in their children. Many gave in to the demands for more and more money. That is when the word came into common parlance. You were an enabler if you provided money to any member of your family who had an addiction. Because the money was enabling him to feed his addiction. A bit of a shock for many who had felt they had no other option than submitting to the addict’s demands in order to keep peace in the family. So, to be an enabler is to assist, knowingly or unknowingly, in a negative activity. The thing about enabling is that many people do it without knowing they are enablers.

Bring the word enabler into the realm of cultural theft and we have a big problem. One example from lived reality: Some years ago, the department of Art and Culture enabled cultural theft by letting a north Indian writer write the folktales of the Nagas and publishing it. Preposterous! Honestly, would the Uttar Pradesh government allow a Naga to write their folktales? (p.s. I’m just using the UP government as an example).

Remember all those questionnaires asking us to put down our psychological and emotional-mental experiences, besides physical, of living in a conflict area which were sent out in the 80s and 90s – whatever happened to them? That data was collected by a non-Naga scholar who made herself an expert on Naga (women) in conflict areas. Opportunities that our scholars should have gotten went to such people. And we enabled them to get it by being ignorant of their designs, and by filling up their questionnaires providing authentic information.

This is how psychological colonisation turns us into enablers helping outsiders to commit cultural theft, and taking away what is our birthright. 

What is psychological colonisation?

When we were colonised by the British less than 200 years ago, geographical and physical colonisation of our lands happened. Along with that, psychological colonisation happened. Our people, referred to in numerous colonial records as ‘savage, barbaric races,’ began to believe in the lie that we were bereft of civilization and intelligence. We began to side with the coloniser when they devalued our cultures and we ourselves referred to our folk ways as customs we followed ‘when we were yet foolish.’ This term is still used in many arenas of the Nagas, in villages, in church communities, in interactions with non-Nagas. It is devaluing of our God-given cultures by ourselves. Coming under Indian administration did not decolonize us. The psychological colonisation tool was used again for many years after statehood. One result: we have trouble accepting that ourart, our stories or our customs have value unless they are validated by an outsider. 

This helps people to take advantage of us in many ways. Flattery is majorly one way to make us enablers. All those seemingly innocuous questionnaires from non-Naga scholars asking us to enlighten them on our cultural practices are not innocent. It was designed to flatter us by making us seemknowledgeable inour cultures so we would give away our knowledge without scrutinizing the intentions behind the questionnaires. 

No use crying over spilt milk but here are a few pointers to what we can do:

1.    Villages can start documenting their folktales and village stories, folk medicine and forest knowledge meticulously. 

2.    After collection and documentation, the villages can establish ownership over their stories by patenting.

3.    Next step is protection of cultural wealth by promulgating laws that make it illegal and punishable for non-members of the village to use those stories. Eventually there should be ways totake care of this issue legally under patenting.

4.    Each village can publish their own folklore individually. Villages can also agree to come together to publish a collective volume and thereby establish copyright over their stories. This will help towards preservation in a more permanent form.

5.    Training for these exercises can be provided. Patenting our folklore and herbal knowledge must be prioritized.

6.    Do as the different aboriginal groups of Australia do. Film the stories and preserve them with the help of modern technology so that the tribe has access to efficient retrieval systems.

It would be great to get feedback on more methods to stop cultural theft.