Protecting Inuit clothing designs

Pauktuutit looks to Panama for legal model.



IQALUIT — Members of Pauktuutit, Canada’s Inuit women’s organization, are looking south for legal strategies to protect the clothing designs of Inuit as intellectual property.

This week, Inuit artisans and seamstresses from all regions of the Arctic are gathering in Rankin Inlet to participate in Pauktuutit’s first national consultation on protecting Inuit traditional knowledge, including amauti designs.

Joining them are Sonia Henriquez, an indigenous Kuna from Panama; Graciela Magan Gutierrez, a sociologist from Peru; and representatives from the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, Avataq Cultual Institute, the regional Inuit associations, and the territorial and federal governments.

Pauktuutit’s executive director, Tracy O’Hearne, said the participation of a Kuna woman from Panama is especially important in achieving the workshop’s goals.

“Panama passed national legislation last year protecting the ownership and financial benefits of the Kuna’s traditional knowledge,” O’Hearn explained in a telephone interview from Pauktuutit’s head office in Ottawa.

“The Kuna have achieved more success than we have,” she said. “[Their success] is something that we may try to repeat in Canada.”

Kuna women are known internationally for their bold, strikingly colourful mola panels, which are coveted by art collectors and dealers as stunning examples of textile art.

According to a press release issued by the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian — which hosted an exhibit of Kuna art in 1998 — mola designs originated as body painting. However, when cloth became available in the late 19th century, women transferred their designs to textiles.

Last summer, the Panamanian government passed an act protecting the collective intellectual-property rights and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.

According to an English translation of the official Spanish text, the law protects work such as: “drawings … designs …, the cultural elements of their history, music, art and traditional forms of artistic expression susceptible to commercial use …, and the customs, traditions, beliefs … and all other traditional forms of expression of indigenous peoples [that] are part of their cultural heritage.”

The Kuna are mentioned explicitly throughout the act’s text.

About 47,000 Kuna live in the Comarca de Kuna Yala, which the Panamanian government recognized legally as a semi-autonomous territory in 1938.

The Comarca de Kuna Yala area measures 3,200 square kilometres. It encompasses more than 300 islands located a few kilometres off the Atlantic coast of Panama, and a small strip of rainforest on the mainland.

According to information on a Website promoting and selling the arts and crafts of indigenous people living in Panama, the Kuna rebellion that led to the legal recognition of Kuna Yala was instigated when the government tried to prevent Kuna women from wearing their traditional mola costume.

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