On Thursday March 8, 2012 a discussion of indigenous women's i ntellectual property and bio-piracy will take place as part of a parallel event to the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This forum will specifically address protecting the intellectual, cultural and scientific property of indigenous women. We will discuss issues such as the difference between the indigenous and western concepts of “ownership”, bio piracy and the disproportionate impact each has on indigenous women. I am especially honored to have been asked to present on the topic because my commitment to this issue is personal, professional, cultural and historical.
 Mandan, Hidatsa and Sahnish women have a long history of being socially and intellectually empowered. My grandmother Maxi'diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) was empowered as the owner and builder of the home, producer of the bulk of the food her family consumed and as a revered elder and knowledge keeper. Now she is increasingly being empowered as an “author” and as a scientist. This is not an easy road however because the intellectual contributions of Native women are often misunderstood, undervalued or even “pirated” by the mainstream society.
I am a scientist specializing in indigenous science and remote sensing ( observation of earth using satellite images). I am also an empowered Mandan, Hidatsa, Sahnish woman making contributions to my field yet I and other native women in science face many challenges that my grandmother did not: a very small number of colleagues, a reduced resource base and a western system where cultural and personal knowledge becomes “intellectual property” to list just a few.
Maxi'diwiac however faced challenges that we do not. These were not always the challenges that come to mind when one thinks of the life of a 19th century Indian woman i.e. smallpox, boarding school, land loss etc. (although she faced those as well). She faced challenges as an author. Maxi'diwiac authored several books which she dictated to Gilbert Wilson, an anthropologist. Her book “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden” has been in publication in various forms for over 100 years. This is an enviable achievement for any author in a world where today’s bestseller is tomorrow’s doorstop. The problem of intellectual property is that Gilbert Wilson (who made no claim that the knowledge was his in spite of using it as his doctoral dissertation) has historically been listed as the author. Maxi'diwiac generally gets an “as told to” acknowledgement at best --and even that is fairly recent.
Regrettably, this is not an unusual problem nor is it only a historical one. The knowledge of indigenous women has fueled large segments of the world economy. Like much in the 21st century, the pace of this problem has accelerated with indigenous knowledge coming to the increased attention of multinational corporations and billion dollar industries. For example, the government of India recently sued Monsanto for pirating indigenous knowledge when Monsanto sought to patent their traditional food of eggplant and China is investing extraordinary resources in isolating the active ingredients in Chinese traditional medicines. Many companies are also in a race for the next billion dollar drug derived from indigenous plants. The problem has reached the point where India is now listing its traditional biological resources as a means of protecting them.
This is however problematic for indigenous communities where ideas of individual “ownership” may differ from the mainstream. How can you patent a plant (or its genetically modified derivative) when it is the cultural property of your entire people and you see that plant itself as having rights and an identity independent of human use? Or as Deborah Harry, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism states “Western intellectual property rights bear little resemblance to indigenous systems that usually focus on the protection and management of resources for the benefit of the collective group.”
There are solutions to these questions and the sources are often the same as the source of the knowledge itself: indigenous culture and tradition. Personally, I reach back to the tradition that empowered Maxi'diwiac; a tradition of respect and reverence for  the intellect and science of women.  Another of my grandmothers, Pink Shell, summed it up well by saying simply, “Our culture has inside it everything that you find in the modern world. We have our own answers”
On March 8th we will be looking for those answers and ways to translate them to the contemporary world of western science and big business. I bring the strength of my grandmothers and my training as a western and indigenous scientist to the table and I am honored and humbled to be chosen to be a part of a process that was begun in my family over a century ago.
Lisa Lone Fight (Mandan, Hidatsa and Sahnish) is an indigenous and remote sensing scientist, national speaker on the integration of indigenous and western science, Native Science Fellow and the former Director of the Wind River Native Science Field Center. She may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook or LinkedIn. Her website is www.earthlodge.net
Indigenous Women and Intellectual Property by Lisa Lone Fight originally appeared on buffalosfire.com and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.