Who Owns the Stories - A Letter to Eldrbarry:

Dear Barry,

We (Leslie Johnson & Glenn Eilers) have seen your pages on Northwest Coast stories, and are particularly pleased that you include a section on the background of the stories; such background is necessary for a full appreciation of such stories.

One point you failed to mention - which probably deserves mention - is that in the Northwest coast traditions, stories can be owned by a clan or individual, and if a story _is_ owned in this way, others may not tell that story, even if they know it; telling it would be considered like theft or plagiarism. It is often difficult to find out whether a particular story is owned - particularly if you do not actually live in the area - but there is a moral need to try, and at the very least to be aware of this issue.

Leslie first became aware of this issue when living along the Skeena River in Northwest British Columbia, where she had the privalege of having friends and associates who were Gitksan, Tsimshian, Nisga'a and Haida, and of working with and learning from elders and Chiefs from some of these groups. There are stories, like the raven or Wiget stories, which may be common cultural property of the whole group, and which may be found amoung several different nations, and stories which are considered to be "true traditions" and are owned property and may only be told by the owner or with permission from the rightful owner. Western writers and storytellers have sometimes been unaware of this, and at least one published story has raised ire in the community as an unwarranted theft of a story which is owned by several related fireweed houses in the Hazelton area of Northwest British Columbia...

These stories are told, by their rightful owners, at feasts and potlatches where they serve to validate the chiefly names and privelidges of the clan, and a failure to respect the owners' exclusive right is a failure to respect those names and privileges (and the cultural traditions surrounding the stories).

We think it could add to the understanding of your readers if you could include a short blurb mentioning this aspect of the storytelling culture of the Northwest Coast in your background page.

Thanks for spreading respect for the traditions of Northwestern Native cultures ....

Leslie & Glenn.

Paula Giese (a Native American] offers this plea on her Web Page:


"Our myths appear popular as NuAge web page fillers. Native myths, as opposed to tall tales and little stories for children, are not entertainment.

It is important that you cite the source from which you transcribed it,
the collector or non-Indian reteller-translator of the myth,
and if given, the original teller. And, of course, the tribe

I think Native myths are meaningless removed from cultural context, but if there is any educational value to them, they must be identified with a specific people, time, and place. Some retellers are reliable. Others sanitize and restructure stories, making them worthless as a means to learn about a culture -- a kind of racism, where retellers believe Native myths (which are often owned by specific individuals or families) are merely primitive raw material for their own literary efforts, often crude and condescending."

There are cultural property (individual, tribal, cultural patrimony) and religious issues involved.
A Line in The Sand: Cultural Property, a new link, deals with these issues.

Thanks for visiting! -- These were printed with the authors' permission, Barry McWilliams, 1996
Your input, remarks and suggestions are most welcome!
Please E-mail me at: eldrtales@eldrbarry.net

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This is: http://www.eldrbarry.net/rabb/rvn/whoowns.htm