I want to explore several case studies of Alaska Native participation on YouTube as a way to test and refine these notions and to explore them on the internet. I wonder if the web, Creative Commons, and other modern, Western technology values mask these indigenous values completely or if the outlaw elements survive and display. I offer:

I Sing. You Dance. — Bryon Nicholai

Byron Nicholai is just 18. He started his channel in 2014 when he was 15-16.  His content is evolving. However, it is focused on Yupik song and dance. Byron is Yup’ik from Tooksok Bay, Alaska, a village of 600. Byron participates on Facebook and Google+ Instagram and Twitter. However, he does not have them all linked to his YouTube channel. Unlike, the other case studies, Byron’s social media presence is more evident on Facebook.  On YouTube, his brand and tagline are none existent or less developed. President Obama recognized Byron as an up and coming leader. He is currently attending the University of Alaska in Anchorage.


Byron’s YouTube channel shows just 1,200 subscribers, and it does not appear to be monetized.

One possible explanation of the differences between Byron’s channel and the other two is where he is in the business plan, and that is worth exploring. However, there are other complicating factors as well. One, for example, is that internet access in rural Alaska is expensive, slow and unreliable. Customers purchase bandwidth and data accordingly; content creators will be limited both in size of upload and in frequency.

Ethnicity and gender play in this case and while I want to be careful not to overgeneralize there are striking aspects of cultural difference that matter to this case. Many young men in remote rural villages drop out of high school. They instead focus on subsistence activities, hunting, fishing, trapping, and on the tools of those activities, snow machines,  and 4-wheelers. (Indeed other indigenous people have YouTube channels and focus on these activities, for example, TheWildNorth.) Whereas many young women persist in school and the workplace developing skills with computers. As well, women seem to take the lead in cultural preservation through language, and arts and crafts. Another element of culture as a topic of content creation is that traditional elders are understood as the knowledge bearers.  Beyond this Byron seems to be playing with style and content mixing hip-hop aesthetic with Yup’ik language. So, for a young person to tread in this arena is potentially fraught with tensions.

Byron seems to be self-conscious of his status as role model and as well respectful of cultural values, and this may lessen some of the tensions. Browsing through the comments on his videos I did not encounter censure rather much encouragement, and this may be because his audience is mostly his peer group although it is not safe to assume that elders are not keeping an eye on his content. With his move to Anchorage, his video length and content is changing. We see him engaging with vlogging now as he travels to locations in the lower-48 and Alaska.

There are several reasons that Byron’s YouTube presence is different from Jon B. and Gold Glove’s. It remains to be seen whether his move to Anchorage and better internet access pulls him in their direction or if the tensions of gender and culture take his channel in another direction.

 X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell


We have several different projects going on on these channels, and curiously some overlap in moments of cultural fusion.

Bryon is a young Yup’ik. He has been creating content focused on his traditional singing, dancing, and drumming. He has been recognized in the Alaska and nationally by President Obama as a rising leader. His channel content is changing as he matures and has gone to college. We see him fusing Yup’ik singing with hip-hop rhythms and techniques and also vlogging some of his recent travels.

Lance Twitchell is an assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Southeast Alaska. His channel is a rich resource for Tlingit language preservation and instruction. His channel archives 70 recordings of fluent elders speaking. As well he offers extensive content on language instruction.

Ed Littlefield’s TED talk and the nativejazzlive channel push the question of cultural innovation into the conversation. Ed’s thinking about it is more ffull-blownperhaps then Bryon’s, but we see them both exploring in this space. Accordingly, we need to ask questions about the cultural, intellectual property at moments of cultural innovation.

First, we have to assume that all of the knowledge we see on these channels falls into the realm of “public information.” Perhaps, if a content creator were to distribute “sensitive information” that could be challenged through the various social media elements on the channel, comments, and dislikes, perhaps as well some sort of reporting (though likely not successfully copyright).

To begin with how does copyright play out on these channels? I did not check every single video on all these channels, however, everyone that I did showed a “standard youtube license” the terms of that are linked here. Additionally, content creators may select Creative Commons CC-BY license which is an open content license.  I did not find any such licenses on these channels, but again, I did not check every single video.  Turning to our indigenous sense of “copyright” I do not see in the “show more” or about sections of video or channel description any discussion of group ownership and individual use as might arise from a sense of indigenous “copyright.” Both Byron’s and Lance’s channels have strong elements of cultural preservation in their content. This kind of intellectual property would seem to fall into a more traditional approach to intellectual property. Additionally, we do not know how any of these content creators have set their YouTube monetization, however, clearly, that is a concern that arises in the Guidelines for Respecting Cultural Knowledge.

When we enter into cultural innovation fusion of Yup’ik singing and hip-hop or the native jazz fusion that Ed Littlefield explores this opens up a variety of questions about intellectual property. How does the innovation contribute to cultural continuity and coherence? Or, is it more individualistic then the tradition can bear? Personally, I think that this kind of innovation is extremely important for keeping young people involved in their cultures. I hazard as well that it is a way for traditional cultures to be vibrant and relevant.  But it is a very complicated question as well. On one hand, we see climate change rendering vast swaths of vocabulary and specialized knowledge irrelevant (think about sea ice) and yet there still exists many points of relevance and creativity for cultural participants to sustain language, aesthetic and values.

The videos on the nativejazzlive channel frequently tell a genealogy or site the traditional source of inspiration for the song. So there is still a sense of group ownership that precedes the innovation. The channel builds in the “live” or performance aspect into its name and that likewise seems a gesture towards a shared ownership as well. However, in the end, I cannot see a real self-consciousness about either traditional intellectual property nor a coherent participation in Western intellectual property protections in these examples. Rather, it seems that this YouTube content is being generated in a kind of vacuum and the default of “standard license” is filling the void. While it makes sense that indigenous content creators would be struggling with the same questions about intellectual property that all content creators are struggling with I suspect that perhaps more is at stake for them.

Indigenous intellectual property

Alaska Native Knowledge Network Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights

Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples

The scope of these resources precludes anymore than a survey of issues and concepts. However, from the outset, I felt that the conversations were talking past each other. The economics and legal structure of Western societies take for granted and from a privileged site, much that indigenous cultures do not or which is so alien that they cannot.

Nation states across the world have experienced difficulties reconciling local indigenous laws and cultural norms with a predominantly western legal system, in many cases leaving indigenous peoples’ individual and communal intellectual property rights largely unprotected.[6] Therefore, international bodies such as the United Nations have become involved in the issue,[2] making more specific declarations that intellectual property also includes cultural property such as historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, and performing arts in addition to artwork and literature.[7]    Wikipedia        

Three resolutions from the 2007 UN declaration address what we are calling “intellectual property.” These are articles 11, 24, and 31. Article 11 provides broad protections for cultural knowledge and identity. Article 24 focuses on and protects traditional medicinal practices. Article 31 speaks most directly to areas easily recognizable in Western discussions of “intellectual property.” “They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.” It is precisely this phrasing that demonstrates the slippage between the conversations.

Intellectual property rights include patentscopyrightindustrial design rightstrademarksplant variety rightstrade dressgeographical indications,[15] and in some jurisdictions trade secrets. There are also more specialized or derived varieties of sui generis exclusive rights, such as circuit design rights (called mask work rights in the US) and supplementary protection certificates for pharmaceutical products (after expiry of a patent protecting them) and database rights (in European law). Wikipedia

There appear to be a few points of contact, copyright, design rights, and plant variety rights seem to map most closely across the two conversations. But this far I have reviewed Western documents or representations.  Turning to the Alaska Native Knowledge Network what can we learn about these three facets of intellectual property from a native perspective? The Guidelines for Respecting Cultural Knowledge offers a definition of two terms that may inform a sense of copyright.

Sensitive cultural information: Cultural information or details that are delicate in nature and not meant to be shared with the general public or those outside of that cultural group.

Public information: Information, which no longer belongs to an individual or group, but has become public property and the general public is allowed to use it. Informants and/or members of a cultural group have a right to understand the use that will be made of their contributions before cultural knowledge is shared and allowed to become public information.

Public information seems to entail traces of the “usufruct” still but also traces of anti-colonialism. Usufruct here emphasizing communal ownership and individual use rights.  Sensitive information seems as well to bear stamps of traditional values and cultural abuse. If we recall the spiral logic of elders transmission of knowledge then perhaps sensitive knowledge is at the tightest coil of the spiral and only revealed after a long effort.  But, I do think this might be different from “secret information.” Secrets would seem to privilege individual rights in a way too contradictory to be situated on the same continuum as usufruct. Certainly, “secrets” may be an appropriate reaction to colonialism, but that is different from the sensitive or powerful knowledge that is transmitted after demonstrated maturity and to a proven cultural knowledge bearer. Certainly, this is very different from copyright it does not give ownership to an individual and their heirs. It does make cultural transmission and preservation possible, but it is aimed at knowledge transfer. There is an interesting parallel to some Western tropes about intellecutal property where analogies between physical and intellectual property seem to be made as well.

Returning to the Guidelines for Respecting Cultural Knowledge we see two points for Elders regarding copyright and intellectual property. Certainly, this is a clear charge of responsibility and probably an onerous burden as well.

Seek out information on ways to protect intellectual property rights and retain copyright authority over all local knowledge that is being shared with others for documentation purposes.

Carefully review contracts and release forms to determine who controls the distribution of any publications and associated royalties.

The second section of this statement which seems to have bearing on both intellectual property and cultural innovation is aimed at Artists and Illustrators. Ten points are raised for these creators (and here I am assuming these are aimed at culture members) I present only the four points that are relevant to my topic.

Make it a practice to insure that all cultural content has been acquired under informed consent and has been reviewed for accuracy and appropriateness by knowledgeable local people representative of the culture in question.

Arrange for copyright authority and royalties to be retained or shared by the person or community from which the cultural information originated, and follow local protocols for its approval and distribution.

Insure controlled access for sensitive cultural information that has not been explicitly authorized for general distribution.

Carefully explain the intent and use when obtaining permission to take photographs or videos, and make it clear in publication whether they have been staged as a re-enactment or represent actual events.

Informed consent and intent and use loom large as responsibilities these content creators may have. As I mentioned already controlled access is another important aspect and one that is unclear in the online environment. The final point, however, stops short, it does not entertain the possibility of cultural innovation nor does it anticipate the thorny questions of ownership. While these statements are actually quite helpful I have to wonder how universally shared they are among cultural members. How frequently are conversations had how much training is provided?

Turning to “design rights” I immediately think of form line art in Southeast Alaska. This 1998 article from the Juneau Empire “Whose art?” is quite an impressive representation of the complexity of viewpoints. Even among the native voices, there is little consistency, however near the end of the article one artist mentions treating art for commercial purposes differently from art for cultural uses. Another theme is a call for artists to pay their dues to gain the vocabulary of the style. But, if we turn time back a bit we recall that this art signaled clans, and moites, it connected people with legend and natural environment, and it was very much owned. Perhaps not in an equivalent way to Wester ownership, yet, access and expression were not, shall we say, public information even within the same culture.

Turning to the Intellectual Property Rights and Indigenous Peoples Rights and Obligations we see an interesting discussion of both “design rights” and “plant variety rights” though in a way that sets our Western thinking on end. This paper is written by a Maori and is focused on their concerns. The author outlines in detail The Wai262 Claim to Indigenous Flora and Fauna and Cultural and Intellectual Heritage Rights and Obligations. 

2.1 The claim relates to te tino rangatiratanga o te Iwi Maori in respect of indigenous flora and fauna me o ratou taonga katoa (and all their treasures) including but not limited to matauranga, whakairo, waahi tapu, biodiversity, genetics, Maori symbols and designs and their use and development and associated indigenous, cultural and customary heritage rights in relation to such taonga. Taongaí in this claim refers to all elements of a tribal groupsí estate, both material and non-material, tangible and intangible.

In this, we see that the conceptual architecture of Western notions of intellectual property as irrelevant to this statement. For the Maori plants and animals and the knowledge of them is bound together with symbols and designs. Interestingly, group estate involves both tangible property and intangible, though it is less clear what metaphors inform or exchange meaning between these categories. I am very hesitant to map concepts from the Maori onto Alaska Native cultures. But for the sake of this assignment, I will hold this point as an artifice that moves the conversation along, but which might be falsified and modified.


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