Aboriginal Intangible Property in Canada: An Ethnographic Review
4. Arctic Region
The cultures of Aboriginal peoples living in the north of Canada are renowned for being uniquely adapted to arctic environments. One of the well known adaptations of these communities is their social equality and principles of sharing. Sharing of food, knowledge, skills are all essential for survival in the arctic and cultural principles of sharing are deeply entrenched in Inuit and other northern cultures. Despite popular misconception, such principles have not precluded concepts of property from being manifest in the culture. Territories, and tangible personal chattels are well documented in Aboriginal communities of the arctic. Intangible property is also an important aspect of these arctic cultures.
Anthropologists working with Inuit communities in the arctic have described four main kinds of intangible property. In the western Arctic technical and ritual knowledge related to the food quest has been recorded as being the property of successful hunters. Throughout the Arctic, highly valuable, inheritable and saleable 'power words' are known and used along with amulets giving individuals special powers. Inuit shamans also have their own categories of knowledge which are their property. Finally, personal songs and community clothing designs may be understood as having property relations to them.
The following investigation of these property types is based largely on ethnographies written in the early 20th century and reflect Inuit 'traditional' culture as it was then. Though it is highly unlikely that these things have fallen into the Inuit 'public domain', the authors recommend further studies or consultations with contemporary Inuit and northern Aboriginal communities to fully understand the ways in which these property systems are practised and engaged today.
In families of successful hunters patrilineal inheritance of secret technical and ritual knowledge regarding food quest is important.93 Technical knowledge includes many manners and forms of specialized traditional ecological knowledge and skills relating to engaging the natural world. Ritual knowledge includes "songs having special powers and… symbolic designs representing a power source".94 Spencer indicates for western arctic communities such as Nunivak that "whoever owned one of these or indeed, any charm, song , or name, had a certain food taboo tied up with the ownership, as for example, being forbidden the back fat of a female caribou or the hind flippers of the ribbon seal".95
Erinaliu·tit96 are individually owned special words, phrases, songs or prayers that have power to assist in the successful completion of life tasks, such as hunting. These power words are held in secret by an individual.97 In Iglulik Inuit communities this secret intangible property "can be bought, at a high price, or communicated as a legacy by one who is dying; but no other person save the one who is to use them may hear them, otherwise they would lose their force".98
There are important restrictions as to when these words may be spoken. When telling a myth or story where a character has used these words, the words themselves may not be repeated.99 When actually uttering the words, one must not "eat of the entrails of any beast", and a man must cover his head with his hood, a woman concealing her face with her hood.100
These power words had a relatively high value during the early part of the 20th century.101 Rasmussen noted that the price of selling such words to an non-Inuit observer "would soon ruin an expedition. A gun with an ample supply of ammunition was regarded, for instance, as a very natural price for a few… words".102 He was, however able to acquire a several of these words and phrases by trading for magic words he had learned in East Greenland. The man (named Aua) with whom he had bartered for them had learned them from an old woman named Qiqertáinaq whose "family had handed down the words from generation to generation, right from the time of the first human beings". Aua had agreed to provide Qiqertáinaq "with food and clothing for the rest of her life" and when he wished to make use of these words "he had first to utter her name; for only through her had the words any power".103
Though Rasmussen notoriously published all of these words and phrases, including the phrases needed to evoke the old woman's power, in both Inuktitut and English,104 part of the intangible property that goes with such words to make them powerful is the manner and style of their performance, which is difficult to produce in texts.
Certain special knowledge is the intangible property of the angakkuq (angákut as it was spelled by Rasmussen), or shaman. The types of intangible property held by the angakkuq include curing techniques, angakkuq songs, certain rituals to assist in hunting or in the recovery of lost souls, and certain means of forecasting the weather.105 This intangible property is closely guarded, and can be bought, sold and inherited.106
Stefánsson records that "a man may buy one of his spirits from a shaman who has many".107
Before a sale, the shaman must ask his spirit if he is willing to be transferred; the answer is usually, if not always, affirmative, but it occasionally happens that the purchaser displeases the spirit and it returns to its original master without ever having manifested itself to the buyer… When the spirit is sold the shaman is relieved from the taboos under which that [spirit] has placed him and these are transferred to the purchaser".108
The 'spirit' and the related taboos Stefánsson describes here are the relationships with the spirits of animals that occur to a shaman in a dream or vision-quest. The taboos are restrictions, for instance, specific things which may not be eaten, that respect the relationship between the shaman and that spirit. From this relationship comes the powers to be successful in the world.
Jenness may have more accurately described the actual property that is sold in such a case, when he says that "the control that a shaman exercises over the spiritual world may be bought by an aspirant" to the shaman's profession.109 It is the knowledge associated with this 'control' or relationship that is key — the prayers, songs, words and rituals that are used in evoking the powers of the spirits.
In the early 20th century, the price paid for this property was relatively high. One example was a man who "paid one Hudson Bay Company double-barreled gun, a new double (twelve skin) deerskin tent, and several smaller articles, worth perhaps thirty or forty foxskins, or $150 to $200 altogether". During his work from 1913–1916, Jenness observed an apprentice named Uloksak paying several caribou to a shaman from Bathurst inlet "for teaching him how to obtain the command over certain spirits".110
Inheritance is as important a means of transferring shamanic intangible property as is sale or barter. Angutingmarik, a shaman from the Iglulik area said "My art is a power which can be inherited, and if I have a son, he shall be a shaman also".111 Jenness makes the careful distinction that it is not the power itself which is handed down, but "a knowledge of the necessary procedure, and what may be called his 'good-will in the business'".112
There are various practices for the exercise of the powers which are manifested from this intangible property. When an angakkuq is able to use the knowledge for the advantage of the entire community, say for instance in the forecast or control of weather, or in divining the location of game, there is no compensation owning.113 Indirectly though, the angakkuq is compensated by the increase in prestige he or she may have in the community, and the deference and respect that people have for these powers.114 However, when intangible property are used for private service, as for instance the curing of an individual or bestowing luck or power for hunting, a fee is expected and paid.115
Clothing designs also fall into the category of personal intangible property and are importantly linked to social identity. Observers from the turn of the 19th century noted that Inuit women in different regions worked distinctive design elements into traditional clothes such as boots, mittens, breeches and the amauti.116 Recently, Pauktuutit (the Inuit Women's Association) has worked to protect amauti designs in the international context.117 In a workshop organized by Pauktuutit, Inuit women discussed their views regarding amauti design. These women "expressed concern about revealing secrets about how the amauti is made but indicated that a person could copy a pattern if they had received permission".118 These women expressed concerns about the mis-use of these regional designs between Inuit communities:
On one hand, any Inuk should be able to learn the different regional styles. On the other, it may not be proper for any Inuk to start profiting from the designs of another region… Regional differences should be documented and some form of compensation should be returned to the community where a design originated.119
The workshop participants felt that ownership in these designs was held by the community of origin, and any specific execution within that design pattern was the creation of the individual artisan. This issue was discussed in the larger context of the appropriation of amauti design by non-Inuit businesses, which was strongly opposed by the Pauktuutit and the Inuit community.