IP & Copyright
Maya Women Fight to Protect Indigenous Textiles from Appropriation
Throughout the western world, indigenous cultures have been fetishized by the ancestors of their past colonizers for their costumes and fashion. As a result, some groups have decided to take legal action to protect their life’s work from corporate mass-production–or at least find a way to earn profits stolen from them. The most recent development has come from Guatemala, where Maya women have made significant strides in their attempt to receive trademark protection for their textile designs–known as huipiles–so that they are not undercut by government-supported industrial fabric production meant to increase the country’s tourism appeal.
The fight began in May 2016 when the Asociación Femenina para el Desarrollo de Sacatépquez (AFEDES)–an indigenous grassroots organization that supports Guatemalan women and their families–brought a motion to the Constitutional Court asking for constitutional protection for their indigenous textiles. Under Guatemala’s constitution, the government guarantees it will “recognize, respect, and promote [indigenous] forms of life, customs, traditions.” AFEDES also cited the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169–which says that governments and companies must consult indigenous people prior to any projects that impact their culture or territory.
“Although from a Western perspective the act of producing our own clothes … is synonymous to backwardness or poverty, for us it constitutes the road to free self-determination of our communities,” said Angelina Aspuac, an AFEDES organizer, during a Constitutional Court hearing.
Prior to the lawsuit, not much had been done to uphold that portion of the country’s governing document. Guatemalan designers had been getting away with utilizing indigenous designs and clothing in their catalogs for years. In 2011, the traditional clothing of the male spiritual leaders of the K’iche’ Maya highland town of Chichicastenango was used for Miss Guatemala in the Miss Universe beauty pageant.
“We are appalled and outraged, because of the misuse of our cultural possessions that follow and are sacred and bequeathed by our ancestors, therefore they are not objects for display and contamination,” wrote representatives of indigenous authorities in a statement.
María’s Bags–a high-end designer handbag company–currently uses indigenous weavings in its products sold for hundreds of dollars in the United States, Europe, and Guatemala. To add insult to the appropriation, María is a commonly-used derogatory word to refer to all Mayan women, though the name was created before the bag designs were approved.
Even with all of this supporting evidence, AFEDES members began to wonder if they would receive the support they so desperately needed in court. They decided that the best course of action would be to make changes to the laws in place. In November 2016, the grassroots organization proposed legislation that would recognize the notion of collective intellectual property and acknowledge indigenous peoples as collective authors of their cultural heritage. If passed, the law would protect Maya weavers from plagiarism and allow them to receive royalties for the commercial use of their designs. The bill was officially accepted for debate on July 3 and currently awaits Congress’ consideration
The progress this legislation has made is unprecedented because history has shown that treatment of indigenous populations domestically–and internationally–has ranged anywhere from purposefully ignorant to downright horrific. In Guatemala, the country has refused to recognize collective intellectual property, even though an estimated 51 percent of the country’s population belongs to the Maya group. The Mayan population also suffered the most during the country’s civil war when over 80 percent of the 200,000 people killed were indigenous.
Around the world, indigenous communities have organized to challenge the use of sacred designs for the sake of fashion. In 2011, for example, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for millions of dollars for the appropriation of its name for a clothing line. The tribe lost the two lawsuits, with the court claiming that the tribe’s trademark was used as a style description, and not as a reference to the tribe. In 2016, Canadian design collective Dsquared2 released a line of stereotypical aboriginal outfits called #Dsquaw–a name based on the term “squaw” which is used as a derogatory word toward indigenous women. While the company did issue an apology, it was still awarded with the Team Canada Rio 2016 clothing contract.