Dale Campbell’s shaman woman mask was inspired by the story of a castaway. A woman abandoned by her tribe because they felt she was of no value. The woman couldn’t bring herself to eat and realized she was becoming a shaman, or healer.
In the years after her creation of the shaman woman mask in 1994, Ms. Campbell, a Wolf clan of the Tahltan Nation woodcarver, said she has seen renditions similar to her mask. While she thinks these renditions are copies of her work, Ms. Campbell said they can never be quite the same, as she begins the process with smudging and sees it through with meticulous time and effort to the very finishing.
“Our artwork is one of the last things that [Indigenous Peoples] have left and then to hear that there’s people out there abusing it – it’s wrong,” Ms. Campbell said.
A new national Indigenous art registry aims to help artists such as Ms. Campbell who have struggled with questions of ownership over their designs. The registry is a joint effort between Tony Belcourt, former president of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Mark Holmes, director of G52 Municipal Services, the service provider for the register’s technology, in consultation with Indigenous artists.
Still in the early stages of creation, the registry is designed to give artists a place to document designs, control ownership and track works as they are sold and resold.
Artists would be given a registry number for each piece of work, so when designs are stolen, they can take action and have a legal document to prove registration, says Lou-ann Neel, a Kwagiulth artist from British Columbia, who says she has seen her designs shared online without permission.
Ms. Neel, who carves, paints and works with textiles and jewellery design, is not able to make a living as an artist. She said independent Indigenous artists in the province are bumped out of their own market by larger companies that mass produce Indigenous designs for souvenir and gift shops.
“We’re in a place in history where our stuff has been stolen for so long, people just don’t see that it’s wrong,” Ms. Neel said.
Gabe Garfinkel, general manager of Native Northwest, a B.C. company that produces Indigenous designs, said his company uses only designs from Indigenous artists who are paid for their work and consent to the design featuring on products, such as children’s books or mugs. Mr. Garfinkel said each product identifies the Indigenous artist who designed it and their cultural affiliation.
“Not every company operates that way,” he said.
Mr. Garfinkel said that while Native Northwest has experienced its licensed designs being used without permission, he is not sure the registry will be useful for artists at the company. The responsibility to ensure authenticity, he said, in part rests with consumers to buy products that identify Indigenous artists on the label. Mr. Garfinkel said he thinks it is unlikely consumers will reference the registry before a small souvenir purchase.
Nevertheless, Indigenous artists believe it can help. In December, Ms. Neel met with Mr. Belcourt and 30 Indigenous artists to discuss the registry. The first step, the group determined, was to set up a national organization to house the registry, which they hope will work in partnership with the Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC), an existing artists’ advocacy organization.
Ms. Neel said the national organization would need local branches to manage the registry for individual Indigenous communities who apply art-making laws differently.
One such collective has existed in Cape Dorset since it was established in 1959. The community-owned West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Ltd. manages copyright for Indigenous artists in Nunavut, many of whom are without access to phones, bank accounts or Internet access and speak only Inuktitut. The co-operative has returned profit of more than $1-million a year for the past three years as equity back to its membership of 1,698, who each pay a one-time fee of $5 for a share, said William Huffman, marketing manager at Dorset Fine Arts a division of the co-operative.
Mr. Huffman said copyright infringement of Indigenous designs is rampant.
“Particularly now with the popularity of Indigenous aesthetics, suddenly you’re starting to see people desiring this on everything from record albums, to coffee mugs, to textiles,” he said.
Anyone in the industry must be willing to police their designs on the world stage, Mr. Huffman said, adding that a registry would alleviate some of the problem of artists chasing people down for using their images without permission.
After developing the idea for a registry with Mr. Holmes, Mr. Belcourt testified to the House of Commons committee on Industry, Science and Technology in October, amidst its review of the Copyright Act.
The committee ultimately included recommendations to consult with Indigenous groups and experts on creating an Indigenous art registry and on establishing an organization to advocate for the interests of Indigenous creators in a report tabled to Parliament in June.
While there is no operating budget yet, Mr. Belcourt said he expects funding to proceed if the government follows through on his recommendations.
The group already received about $40,000 in funding grants, he said, from Canada Council of the Arts and Canadian Heritage, which was mostly used for their consultation meeting in December, and the group will be seeking more.
“Where it’s really going to make a difference is the government’s response to those recommendations,” said Ms. Neel.