Indigenous Branding

I’ve just returned from the Association for the Social Anthropology of Oceania meetings in Charlottesville, Virginia (more on which later). One of the sessions I sat in on at that meeting was the one on “interpreting the discourse of intellectual property rights in the Pacific”: Most of the participants at the session had a sense — to put it very roughly — that they did not like it when representations of indigenous people and knowledge about them slipped out of the control of indigenous communities. At the same time, many felt disatisfied with the solutions offered by the appurtenances of copyright, trademark, and patent. At the same time, given the power differentials that exist between indigenous people and enormous corporations (and other bad guys) it seems that Pacific islanders have to use something like the law to get the leverage necessary to level the playing field

Many of the papers in the sessions discussed alternatives to IP drawn from Pacific. Although not much of a practical solution (we won’t have IP laws based on Sepik cosmology coming to a Parliament Near You anytime soon) they did offer some ways to think out of the box about how to approach property etc.

But what other options were there? How do we find a language (other than IP) to speak about the ways to control the flow of information about you when it slips out of your graps and starts circulating in wider spheres. The solution, it seemed to me, came from my own (or perhaps just Strong’s) native theory of semiotics: branding.

This came to me in relation to my class on anthropology and contemporary problems, where we just finished Reardon’s Race To The Finish. In one of the chapters of that book, Reardon discusses the way that indigenous groups organized opposition to the Human Genome Diversity Project through networks of email, phone, and web-based communication that they, as ‘untouched and isolated populations’ were not (on the geneticists account) supposed to have.

This is of course classical consciousness raising in the activist mode. We as anthropologists can grok the formation of consensus regarding the identities and attributes of the actors involved from any number of perspectives — the ‘construction of social problems’ literature from sociology, the poetic-pragmatic work coming out of linguistic anthropology, etc.

But couldn’t we understand the spectacular discrediting of the HGDP as a superb exercise in brand management — or rather brand destruction — by groups such as RAFI and others. Indeed, NGOs (environmental or indigenous or what have you) have got these sorts of publicity campaigns down cold and have been using them effectively for decades. There are downsides of course — Amazonian indians gain traction with Suzy Chapstick only when playing the ecologically noble savage, e.g. — but it is perhaps surer a thing than IP claims.

Could this sort of activity be conceptualized in terms of branding? If so, could doing so be more than simply an intellectual exercise in the cooptation of ‘The West’s’ folk semiotics by its academic semiotics? Could actively thinking in terms of brand be useful when designing political strategy to control what people think about kava that is not grown in Vanuatu? Could we perhaps triangulate academic theories of semiosis with indigenous accounts of property and belonging with folk notions of brand? Frankly, I’m not sure we could. But thinking about this possibility seems to me to be Not Boring.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

9 thoughts on “Indigenous Branding

  1. Rex–

    Seems like a promising line of inquiry–definitely not boring. But the idea of “brand” seems to have two uses these days, one loose and the other strict. The loose notion of brand refers to a distinct marker associated with a place, process, institution, company, etc. The strict version encompasses the loose one but locks it up with one or more trademarks. The problem with the loose version is that the holder can’t control it fully. Thus others can degrade the brand through dilution, distortion, or appropriation pretty much at will, especially if they mobilize the media resources that allow them to overpower the holder’s ability to stabilize the brand’s meaning. The attraction of trademark is that it gives the holder far stronger control over semiotic drift. But wouldn’t that take indigenous people back into the orbit of the legalisms you’re trying to avoid? Still, it’s worth noting that some legal scholars insist that trademark–or perhaps some variation on the theme adapted to the circumstances of indigenous peoples–is potentially a better approache to cultural protection than patents and copyrights.

  2. As a Pacific islander, I share their concerns of bioprospecting

    In realm of I.P, more effort is required in small island nations to beef up their Patent Offices and the personnel within them. There are legal aid commissions in several island nations, but most are related to criminal law. Overseas aid that support these institutions do not really focus on I.P or Entertainment Law.

    Dismissing these legal pillars only widen the knowledge gap and creates more excuses for the abuse of I.P.
    Like the thought posed at the end of Youtube video of digital ethonography(Machine is Using Us), time to re-examine everything. Perhaps these institutions are using and abusing us.

  3. It is certainly the case that in the arena of free and open source software production, while copyrights and patents are looked upon unfavorably, trademarks are used routinely to control names (like Debian, Linux etc.) and authenticate projects/source. And in the case of Debian, which is a non-profit quite committed to the ethical principles of free software, it is an organization patently not about selling and commercialization, though of course it is allowed. I just raise this as an example in which branding is not deployed for selling but is used to secure some margin of control when a lot of it has been otherwise ceded.

    Also, while trademarks never expire, (barring genericide), I think many geeks I have talked to are more comfortable with them within the trilogy of patents, copyrights, and trademarks because their use, while it controls a great degree of semiotic meaning, especially related to anything commercial, should not in theory suppress political speech. And indeed, if you look at the American court cases of the last two decades, they point to a pretty robust protection for use of trademark for political critique (of course if you use a corporate trademark, the onus is often on you to defend yourself once you get sued by a entity probably with access to many more corporate lawyers than you)

    So if trademarks were used in indigenous context, I think it would be interesting to see how and if they were challenged by holders of the trademark in instance of political critique, if that were ever to arise (or if anyone knows of such a case, please pipe up :-))

  4. Yes Michael is quite right to point out that branding strategies typically rely on some rather punitive attempts at IP control — think of Disney’s strict control of Mickey Mouse and the way the symbol itself has been appropriated by the the f/oss people. Although I think Biella’s point is also germane — it is possible to think about your self-presentation in these terms without relying necessarily on trademark protection. I suppose this is the ‘loose’ version Michael talked about.

    I suppose my overall intuition in invoking the notion of ‘brand’ is that the way to protect one’s information is a strategy of release and management, rather than one of enclosure. That said, of course, I must admit that websites started to dis Amazonian-themed Jamba Juice concotions is one thing, while fighting bioprospecting is another and that the hard edge of global political economy can’t simply be blunted with a canny presentation of self.

  5. One of the most marked aspects of current thought on “branding” is that it should be dynamic and user-centered. That is, what many companies are calling “branding” has less to do with staking out their turf than with creating a presence that people relate to, use, embody, perpetuate, etc, etc, etc.

    So the brand concept seems like an important one to investigate, at least from where I sit in brand-saturated Portland, Oregon. Goodness knows that developed countries are drowning in hordes of marketing experts, creating employment for themselves in perpetuity. Maybe I’m buying their big sell, but it seems to me that the climate that has been created by their efforts is a global reality, and that the power brokered by branding is real power.

    Some thoughts on branding, and some on its possible uses:

    The presence of a brand is composed out of a number of loose glosses and painstakingly constructed relationary meanings between very simple concepts. These are the meanings that often relate complex messages while undeniably standing in for substance. The brand starts out consciously manufactured, and it’s much simpler than a cockfight in Bali, but has certain aspects that should be pretty familiar.

    Rex hit the nail pretty solidly on the head when he called brand “a strategy of release and management.” Brands are conceptualized by their originators, but developed by users. It’s a mistake to conceptualize brand adherants as toeing any sort of pre-constructed party line. Apple is the industry golden child because the company has managed to inspire users to take on the brand’s signifiers and to use and change them in a way consistant with the company’s goals.

    I have to disagree with Rex’s conclusion, though. The global economy is made of ideas that may only be navagable, especially for those with limited access to political representation, by means of the mastery of brand representations. The reduction of concept necessary for this engagement is sort of galling and presents plenty of pitfalls (“noble savagery”). Nonetheless, for IP issues to be real in the court of public opinion, the challenge of the brand is one that indigenous people may need to take up. Access to the global political economy may very well depend on successful use of such tools. Not to mention access to local support…

    Am I off base here?

  6. A few examples of indigenous uses of ‘branding’ strategies through IPRs:

    In her article The Invention of Traditional Knowledge Madhavi Sunder addresses the issue of how people in India (indigneous, subaltern, poor–she uses various langauge) are putting IPRs to work for them specifically through the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act 1999–which stems from India having to comply with TRIPs. GIs, she explains, give trademark-like protection to goods from a specific region (France lobbied for this in TRIPs to protect wine makers). Although limited in their applicability, Sunder argues that “It may be important to think of GIs as part of a larger framework in which the poor learn the secrets of Madison Avenue. […] creating a protected brand allows one to stave off complete usurpation by mass produced substitutes. (20)

    Similarly, Haidy Geismar in Copyright in Context demonstrates how carvers in Vanuatu are using copyright legislation and their local “system of entitlement” to essentially brand their works and thus “control the marketplace for their customary materials” (441).

  7. Coombe deals with explicit instances of the branding of the ‘native’ or ‘other’ or ‘indigenous’ (where ‘brand’ = trademark) in her article on trademark and American legal frontiers (CA, mid-90s), which richly complements Michael’s work on this topic. Her argument there in a sense dovetails with Michael’s elsewhere: the ‘indigenous’ becomes a source of authenticity in precisely those contexts where the authenticity of experience is called into question (viz., mass culture). Indigenous trademarks (that is, the racial/cultural other as itself a trademark) form a source of symbolic distinction (authenticity/value) amenable to legal recognition. Those trademarks are recruited to the project of creating the national subject as (unmarked: white, male) consumer of (marked: native, other) stuff, as for example, the frontier itself.

    Of course, Rex you know that I think it’s all branding, all the way down. But it’s nevertheless depressing to think that the answer to problems of cultural integrity for marginal and marginalized peoples (or powerful ones!) is better marketing strategies. Just make sure that those strategies don’t involve LiteBrites ™ in Boston!

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