Ulia Gosart: IS Lecturer Organizes UN Discussion of the Protection of Indigenous Knowledges

Talk in May took place during Forum commemorating the 10th anniversary of United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Ulia Gosart (’13, Ph.D., Information Studies), a lecturer in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, organized a discussion on the protection of traditional indigenous knowledge at the 16th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on May 5 in New York. Participants examined the protection of traditional forms of knowledge within a framework of indigenous sovereignty. The Forum marked the tenth anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the main international instrument that supports indigenous sovereignty over traditional forms of knowledge. The panel discussion included Elsa Stamatopoulou, director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program, Columbia University; Lucinda Longcroft, head of the World Intellectual Property Organization; and Eric Cheyfitz, the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters, Cornell University.

Gosart says that complexity of the problems associated with protection of indigenous knowledge requires the collaboration of scholars from different scholarly fields and cultural and historical traditions.

“Indigenous rights advocates talk of knowledge as a living entity, resisting practices of turning their forms of knowledge into commodities,” she says. “Yet outside of the political potential of this idea, the concept of ‘living knowledge’ gives us an insight into phenomenological aspects of knowledge that we tend to ignore focusing on the commercial potential of ideas. It posits traditional knowledge and knowledge in general as an inherent component of social interaction vs. solely as a product of an individual mind.

“For example, my grandmother was a doctor from a rural village in Udmurtia, Russia. Some of the plants she used in her practice perhaps could be reduced to their chemical properties that create a certain reaction in a human body. This form of representing traditional knowledge is apparent in some databases useful for making new drugs. Yet for my grandmother, a plant was a living being … and the healing power of her plants, which depended on their chemical compositions, also were evoked when she used them – often while singing – generating emotional responses in her patients. In other words, the effectiveness of my grandmother’s medical practices depended not only on the plants’ chemical properties, but also and primarily on the living contexts of her practice.”

Gosart says that information professionals and intellectual property scholars “tend to operate with an idea of knowledge as an ‘object’ which is a historically prominent and valuable framework. Yet it limits our understanding of knowledge by veiling the contexts of its creation; it leaves unexamined – and for the most part, unexplained – the actual processes that shape how people perceive and make sense of their surroundings.

“The idea of living knowledge in contrast, stresses the fundamental significance of protecting the environments that shape experiences of a knowing subject primarily because these environments… are the integral constituents of what we term ‘knowledge.’”

Gosart says that the idea of living knowledge often engenders the commercial potential of this knowledge and introduces the concept of protecting living knowledge as property.

“Yet it is more inclusive, since it also helps to capture how knowledge comes into being; it stresses the worth of collaborative approach in solving problems of different scope, from those related to a community healing, toward global ones, surrounding environmental protection, agriculture, and the regulation of the knowledge economy,” notes Gosart. “Indigenous peoples have a lot to offer, and seek partnerships on the terms that respect their rights to self-determination, given that at stake here is the very security of their communities.”

 

Above: Ulia Gosart, a lecturer in the UCLA Department of Information Studies (third from left) organized a discussion on the protection of traditional indigenous knowledge at the United States Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on May 5.

L-R: Elsa Stamatopoulou, director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program, Columbia University; Gosart, Lucinda Longcroft, head of the World Intellectual Property Organization; and Eric Cheyfitz, the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters, Cornell University.

Photo by Joel Sheakoski