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Coleman, Elizabeth Burns, and . Repatriation and the Concept of Inalienable Possession

2010, In The Long Way Home, edited by Paul Turnbull and Michael Pickering: Berghan Books.

Summary: The concept of inalienable possession often figures centrally in debates about repatriation of cultural artifacts (which are also often artworks). The right of alienability (or the right to transfer title to property) is one of the core rights in Western property theory. If property is inalienable, this means that title to it cannot rightly be transferred. In this paper, Coleman analyzes the concept of inalienable possession, and argues that laws (such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)) can foist a conception of inalienable possession on indigenous peoples that can be inaccurate to past and changing cultural norms. She uses this point to offer a distinction between property and ownership. This opens up conceptual space for a link between objects and identity through ownership that might nevertheless allow for the alienability of such property.

Comment: This paper is best for a course unit that is making room for in-depth discussion of the property dimensions of cultural property. It would pair well with Janna Thompson's "Art, Property Rights, and the Interests of Humanity," or James O. Young's "Cultures and Cultural Property." It can be also used together with or in lieu of Sarah Harding's much longer and more detailed paper "Justifying Repatriation of Native American Cultural Property."

Coombe, Rosemary J., and . The Properties of Culture and the Politics of Possessing Identity: Native Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy.

1993, Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 6(2): 249-285.

Abstract: The West has created categories of property, including intellectual property, which divides peoples and things according to the same colonizing discourses of possessive individualism that historically disentitled and disenfranchised Native peoples in North America. These categories are often presented as one or both of neutral and natural, and often racialized. The commodification and removal of land from people’s social relations which inform Western valuations of cultural value and human beings living in communities represents only one particular, partial way of categorizing the world. Legal and cultural manifestations of authorship, culture, and property are contingent upon Enlightenment and Romantic notions built upon a colonial foundation. I will argue that the law rips apart what First Nations peoples view as integrally and relationally joined, but traditional Western understandings of culture, identity, and property are provoked, challenged, and undermined by the concept of Aboriginal Title in a fashion that is both necessary and long overdue.

Comment: In this wide-ranging essay, Coombe situates debates about cultural appropriation in the context of colonial power dynamics. She discusses both appropriation of styles and stories as well as alienation of material cultural property. In particular, she criticizes the appeal to Western conceptions of property in these debates, and questions whether Native identity and autonomy can be appropriately protected by subsuming Native intangible cultural property claims under Western frameworks for intellectual property. This is a long and challenging essay, best used for more advanced courses. Alternative texts that capture some of the ideas here include Loretta Todd's "Notes on Appropriation" (on which Coombe draws), or, for a text that situates some of these ideas in the literature on epistemic injustice, see Erich Hatala Matthes, "Cultural Appropriation without Cultural Essentialism?".

Harding, Sarah, and . Justifying Repatriation of Native American Cultural Property

1997, Indiana Law Journal 72(3): 723-74.

Summary: Harding’s article offer an in-depth look at the theoretical justification for the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, paying special attention to the category of “cultural patrimony” under which non-funerary artworks will often fall if they are subject to NAGPRA. The paper focuses on three different approaches to justifying repatriation: in terms of compensation for historical injustices, the value of an object to a community, and challenging the very possibility of ownership of cultural patrimony. Harding ultimately favors this final approach, suggesting a stewardship model on which we all have obligations with respect to the protection of cultural property.

Comment: This is a long law review article, and so is best for more advanced classes. It is a useful text for instructors who are interested in exploring cultural property issues in a legal but philosophically informed context. One can also assign only certain sections focusing on particular issues. For a shorter article that also promotes a stewardship model, the Warren paper is a good substitute, though not likewise embedded in the legal issues (and written before the passage of NAGPRA).

Thompson, Janna, and . Cultural Property, Restitution and Value

2003, Journal of Applied Philosphy 20(3): 251-262

Summary: In this paper, Thompson approaches questions about the repatriation of art and artifacts through the lens of cultural property. She briefly discusses the nature of cultural property itself, and then moves on to exploring how her preferred conception of cultural property (roughly, culturally significant objects that are legitimately acquired by a collectivity) can facilitate or hinder claims for repatriation. In particular, she discusses the relationship between cultural property-based claims and potentially countervailing considerations, such as the purported universal value (or “value for humanity”) of cultural heritage.

Comment: This text offers a helpful introduction to cultural property and repatriation that is clear, readable, and concise. It is a good choice if you only have time for a single reading on this topic, but it also pairs well with most other readings in this module.

Thompson, Janna, and . Art, Property Rights, and the Interests of Humanity

2004, Journal of Value Inquiry 38(4): 545-560.

Summary: In this paper, Thompson sets up a potential tension between two kinds of cases. On the one hand, we might think it is wrong for a wealthy collector to destroy great works of Western art that have value for all of humanity. On the other hand, we might think it is acceptable for indigenous peoples to rebury or ritually destroy artifacts from their culture, even though these works might also have value for all of humanity. How do we reconcile these intuitions? After discussing and dismissing attempts to resolve the problem by appeal to the value of the property for its possessors or the desires of non-owners, Thompsons suggests that by looking at the value of art in the context of different cultural traditions we can see why a certain universalism about the value of art will tell against allowing the destruction of artwork by the wealthy collector, but allow for the reburial or destruction of artifacts by certain indigenous communities.

Comment: This paper pairs well with Kwame Anthony Appiah's 'Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?' or Peter Lindsay's "Can We Own the Past? Cultural Artifacts as Public Goods." It is particularly good at engaging questions about the universal value of art and its implications for ownership introduced in those texts.

Todd, Loretta, and . Notes on Appropriation

1990, Parallelogramme 16(1): 24-33.

Summary: Todd (Métis) situates contemporary acts of cultural appropriation in the colonial appropriation of indigenous land. She offers a normative definition of cultural appropriation according to which it is understood as the opposite of cultural autonomy. In the course of her discussion, she responds to a number of defenses of cultural appropriation that, she argues, fail to recognize the asymmetries of power in which appropriation from indigenous communities is embedded.

Comment: This is an excellent text to use in order to present students with a conception of the wrong of cultural appropriation that is firmly rooted in the context of colonial power dynamics. It is short, and can be usefully compared and contrasted with the arguments presented by James O. Young in "Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.".

Warren, Karen J., and . A Philosophical Perspective on the Ethics and Resolution of Cultural Property Issues

1989, In The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property, edited by Phyllis Mauch Messenger. USA: University of New Mexico Press.

Summary: Warren’s chapter offers a careful and systematic look at arguments concerning what she calls “the 3 R’s”: restitution (or repatriation) of cultural property, restrictions on cultural imports and exports, and the rights (to ownership, access, etc.) over cultural property. She ultimately argues that this framework should be overturned in favor of an approach to cultural property disputes that is modeled on conflict resolution. This approach deprioritizes traditional talk of property and ownership in favor of a focus on preservation.

Comment: Due to its clear and organized approach, this article is an excellent teaching resource, and a good choice in particular if you plan to do a single reading on repatriation issues. While it often focuses more on summary than developing the many argumentative approaches mentioned, it offers a helpful backbone for further discussion.