Owning identity


In May 2016, Guatemalan indigenous weavers filed for a declaration of unconstitutionality over the country’s industrial laws. They claimed that the law does very little to protect the collective intellectual property of their textile designs from national and transnational companies who use them without their consent.

A maya woman in Santiago Atitlán weaves a traditional textile using a backstrap loom. Photo: Jeff Abbott/comvite

“There are laws that protect intellectual property rights of an individual or a nameless society”, explains Angelina Aspuac of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES). “But there isn’t a law that protects the collective intellectual property rights of indigenous designs.”

Aspuac argues that the State economically exploits the men and women who weave the textiles. For example, indigenous women in Guatemala are featured heavily in promotional material for tourism. However, they also face constant discrimination and very little opportunity according to the United Nations and other international development organizations. “Companies and designers are taking our clothing and textiles to make all sorts of items without asking for permission or paying for them”, she explains.

A larger piece of textile being woven in a medieval foot pedal loom in Santiago Atitlán. Photo: Jeff Abbott/comvite

The case, which is currently before the country’s Constitutional Court, is primarily being pushed by weavers from the departments of Chimaltenango, Scatepéquez, and Guatemala. But it has also found support in other parts of the country. “It is necessary for us as indigenous peoples to do what AFEDES is doing”, pointed out Diego Petzey Quiejú, a young weaver from Santiago Atitlán, Sololá. “We need to recognize that weaving is more than just work; it is a part of our identity, our history and the knowledge of our communities. This is something that isn’t happening among us right now.”

And he’s not wrong. Traditionally, every family produced their own clothing. Women used the backstrap loom, as they still do today, to create designs deeply tied to the identity of the community where it was woven. They represent a living connection with their ancestors and their culture. The symbols of birds, trees, figures of men and women, and other parts of nature are present in the textiles are there for far more than their aesthetic appeal. They reflect stories and spiritual connections with the Mayan cosmovision. However, fewer and fewer families produce their own clothing nowadays.


Textile being woven in a medieval foot pedal loom in Santiago Atitlán. Photo: Jeff Abbott/comvite

So, this case also serves as an effort from the communities to recover the status of traditional clothing and its significance as they face the offer of cheap western clothing styles imported from elsewhere. Not only that, but they have to worry about computerized imitations of their traditional designs being mass produced by Chinese companies. Those cheap designs have recently flooded community markets across the country. And, even though their low cost may help promote the wider use of traditional clothing, they have also caused the demand and price for traditionally made clothing, which can go for as high as $400USD, to fall.

“This is a result of consumerism,” said Petzey Quiejú. “There is a high international demand for our weavings. But when [companies] create this demand it comes with impacts. When they do not place value on their work, other than the economic value, artisans slowly incorporate these machines. Little by little, the weavers will be replaced by automation. There is a great problem created by the invasion of these machines that are copying our designs.”

Shuttles used in a foot pedal loom in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. Photo: Jeff Abbott

This case in Guatemala also comes at a time in which more and more fashion designers across the globe have begun to use indigenous designs in their clothing. For instance, French designer Isabel Marant came under fire after she was accused of trying to copyright an indigenous Mixe design from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. Though the company has outright denied trying to copyright the design, this has not eliminated outcry over its appropriation, as it was used as part of the fashion company’s Spring/Summer collection.

“We are facing an obvious transgression of the Mixe people by companies who seek to rob them of their cultural heritage and intellectual property rights, recognized even by the United Nations,” said Adelfo Regino Montes, Oaxaca’s secretary for indigenous issues in an interview with Vogue Magazine. Montes also stated that he planned on filing a lawsuit over the potential copyright. Isabel Marant eventually issued a statement acknowledging the origins of the design, and stated once again that she was not planning on claiming the design.

A traditional textile pattern being woven in Santiago Atitlán. Photo: Jeff Abbott/comvite

This issue, however is not something that’s limited to the third world. Other designers have also faced criticism and protest over the appropriation of indigenous designs and names. For example, in 2011, the Navajo Nation in the United States sued retail giant Urban Outfitters for millions of dollars over the use of their name in a product line. The company used the tribe’s name in a collection, which included gems such as “Navajo panties”. However, in 2015, the court decided in favor of Urban Outfitters, claiming that the tribe’s name was not famous enough.

Back in Guatemala, AFEDES still spearheads a campaign to protect collective property rights. As one of its members points out, “the designs are not protected, so whoever wants to can come and print them, and sell them in large volumes, and there are no impacts. The government shows little interest in protecting the designs.”

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