But it’s my culture, damn it!

Posted: January 31, 2011 in In my opinion...
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

And I promised myself I wouldn’t write about anything controversial on my blog…

Recently I received a rejection letter for a short story.  Nothing remarkable about that, you might say.  The story was about a taniwha, a Maori creature of legend.  Amongst other things, the publishers had this to say:

“The editorial group were [sic], in general, pleased with your story. However, we have been advised that Indigenous stories can be seen as impinging on the intellectual property rights of Indigenous peoples, Maori in this case.

We have been told that you will need to get the appropriate permissions to use this story. I have no idea how or where you can get these permissions.

[…] rather than negotiate an area that is legally a bit murky, we have decided not to use such indigenous type myths.”

My argument is not with the publishers.  They had other valid reasons for rejecting the story, reasons that had nothing to do with the use of Maori mythology.  They have the right to reject a story for any reason they damn well please, and they are not obliged to tell me why.  They did me a courtesy by taking the trouble to outline their reasons, and for that I am grateful.  And if I were in their position, given the advice they have received, I would probably have made the same decision.

No, my argument is with the political climate that has made them so fearful in the first place.

Indigenous peoples?  By what criteria does one qualify to be an Indigenous People?  Every myth and legend originates from a culture that was at one point indigenous to somewhere.  To say, “this culture over here, this is fair game, but that one… oh no, you can’t touch that one” seems nonsensical to me.

Appropriate permissions?  You know why you don’t know how to get permission?  Because there is no way.  There’s no one person or organization invested with the authority to grant permission on behalf of the Maori people.  And it’s impossible to ask the permission of every living Maori on the planet.  But I’ll tell you who will give you permission.  Me.  I am of Maori descent, with Maori ancestry on both my mother’s and my father’s side.  This is my culture, my intellectual property, and I claim the right to tell my people’s stories my way.

Legally murky areas?  For that, I have no argument.  Litigation, it seems, is all.

  1. fozmeadows says:

    I don’t know if you’ve read or come across a YA novel called Guardian of the Dead written by my friend Karen Healey, but it’s an NZ-based urban fantasy, and it features a taniwha. So clearly, there is no law against using them in stories!

  2. Colum Paget says:

    # Colum, part of the problem is that
    # there is no such thing as “The Maori
    # Community”. Each iwi (tribe) has its own
    # beliefs and traditions, its own leaders,
    # and approaches issues such as Intellectual
    # Property Rights in different ways. Between
    # and within tribes there is often dissent.

    This is what I suspected when I said ‘There’s no world-wide supreme command of Java programmers’. This makes it even harder for editors/writers to know what they should do, because there’s not even one central authority they should go to.

    I find it astounding that long practiced elements of human culture can be ‘copyrighted’ like this. I’ll read those links sometime, right now I have to get off to work. And that’s the problem right there, it’s not that editors/writers are lazy, it’s that stepping into the minefield will tie up more of their time than they can spare, they’re already struggling enough as it is.

    The thing is to my mind, if you wanted to exterminate maori culture, this would be a good way to do it. For writers in spec-fic the smart move is to try and invent fiction ‘from whole cloth’ so there’s no ‘copyright’ issues.

    I’ve been trying to write a story using ‘Lady Midday’, a Russian folklore character. The story stalled, but anyways the thing is, should I be writing to the Kremlin (or the Moscow academy of arts, or something) asking for permission to use her? Well, I haven’t time, easiest solution is not to bother, and stick to ‘safe’ material.


  3. Diana says:

    I saw this earlier and I’ve been thinking about it for several hours.

    First, I didn’t know you were part Maori and I’ve published a couple of your pieces. From your name alone, I would have guessed you were at least part Scottish. Since it may be an issue with other publications, I suggest including a note in the cover that you are part Maori.

    It’s a rather interesting issue. On the one hand, in the US we have the first amendment and freedom of expression. Which means I can take any sacred image, figure, relic, thing that I want and do whatever I want with it in a story. Folktales, fairytales, and legends are in the public domain and not protected by copyright. That would include the Native American legends.

    On the other hand, there is respect for another group’s religion or spiritual practices. Were I to take the Maori legend and do something perverse with it, I can see you getting upset about it. This is where publishers can get on boggy ground. I think the publisher was trying to stay out of the quicksand of potentially offending the Maori people and came up with the intellectual property angle.

    But as I said before, since you are part Maori and there is no real reason for you not to be able to write about your culture, let the editor know about your background.

    • Thanks, Diana. It’s good to get the perspective of another editor, especially one US based.

      • Colum Paget says:

        I do not agree with this whole concept of ‘permission’ anyway, in fact I find it appalling. Who do people of non-British descent have to go to to get permission to use calculus or write spec-fic or do morris dancing? Can it be me?

        Do we know that this whole ‘permission’ requirement even really exists, and that it’s not something put around by some self-appointed scare monger?

        Finally, the whole ‘permission’ thing is cultural genocide by stealth. It is a means to burden certain cultural artifacts or memes with extra rules before you can use them, dissuading people from doing so and thus assisiting the dominant culture in exterminating anything else.


    • Colum Paget says:

      Hello Diana,

      I can see what you are saying about ‘doing something perverse’ with a cultural element. (I agree, this does get difficult r.e. free speech etc.) I think this might be where the whole thing started, and it’s gradually grown (perhaps by chinese whispers) into an attitude of ‘Don’t mess with other people’s culture’.

      However, I find something distinctly creepy about the idea that Tracie should have to put “I am part maori” on her submissions. This does explain some things I’ve seen markets say about “If you have written a story about pirates, and you happen to be a pirate, tell us”. I’ve always thought that was odd, why does it matter who you are? Shouldn’t we be moving towards a situation where the identity of the writer is unimportant and it’s all about the story?

      Apart from anything else, by logical extension this requirement could lead to people putting information out about themselves that they might not wish to publish. If someone is transexual, for instance, they may not wish to announce that because if they’re writerly identity can be mapped back to their physical person, it could mean danger and trouble for them depending on where they are living and what their personal situation is.

      Furthermore, I suspect that having to get a ‘pass’ for using cultural artifacts in a story will reduce the number of people using them, and thus assist the culture in question to ‘fade into history’.

      Finally, everyone is assuming that Tracie being part Maori makes everything okay as regards her writing something. It doesn’t. I am unconvinced that something written by a person that causes uproar in the maori community will suddenly become ‘okay’ when it turns out that the author is maori rather than white. Surely it is the thing that is written that has caused the offence, not the identity of the writer?

      I suspect that if we could get in touch with some kind of maori representitive council though, (and I’ve a suspicion there isn’t one, any more than there’s a ‘World high command of Java programmers’), their reaction might be very much “Huh?! Write what you like, none of us read spec-fic anyway!” (Which is another issue. I suspect Sci-fi in particular is not generally big among indiginous populations. Why not?)

      • Diana says:


        I see your points.

        Let me turn this around a bit so you can see where I am coming from. I live in the Southeastern US. If I read a story that is set in the South and the author gets something wrong, then I notice it and sometimes get annoyed by it. The probability that the author is going to get something wrong goes up depending on where they live and how much or little research they did on it. An author who was born and raised or at least lived here many years will not make those mistakes.

        This is true of any culture, not just with the indigenous people. It would be harder for me to write a story set in England and get the details right, than it would be to set the story in Florida.

        So, I can research the Maori culture, interview people, even go for a visit, and none of that will be as good as what Tracie has being born into that culture. All else being equal, Tracie would write a better story than I would because of the experience she has to draw on.

        True story. I read a submission with a story based on The Vikings. The writer had the Vikings sailing north from Norway to get to Scotland. I see that kind of thing happen all the time. And that’s why an indication that you know what you’re talking about is helpful to the editor.

  4. A J Ponder says:

    How frustrating – did you write back and say you were “kosher” maybe you should change your last name – or failing everything else – play the race card 🙂

    I agree it’s crazy. Stories are stories – by building modern mythologies it only increases interest in the traditional stories. But the granting of such “permissions” shouldn’t be too onerous just by going back to your family and asking for help they should be able to find someone/group to vouch for you – which is all you need although it seems a bit OTT unless the story is worth real money.

    • I don’t normally reply to rejection emails, but I did in this instance, just to let them know that I am part-Maori and thus feel some entitlement to using my own culture’s legends. The story was not going to be accepted anyway, for other non-related reasons.

      I’d be interested to know if publishers have similar reservations and concerns about publishing stories from their own indigenous cultures. In the US, do they avoid American Indian stories? In Canada, do they shun Inuit stories? A quick Google search turns up bucket loads of taniwha books in New Zealand, some traditional and some a modern take on the legend, but they seem to be all children’s stories.

      I’m sure the publishers are coming from a place of sincerity, respect, and good intentions, but yes, it could be seen as another form of racism. Culture is a living, breathing, changing thing. By hermetically sealing it off and putting a big fat “Do Not Touch” sign on it, they’re killing it off.

      • Wendy Waring says:

        Just arrived at your post via reading Bren’s and Paul’s comments on facebook.

        Between the lines of this letter, what I read is:
        “We white editors are too fearful of being accused of cultural appropriation to take a risk, and too lazy to do the work to enable ourselves to judge when something we publish might be justifiably be called on its cultural appropriation. So we’re blaming it on ‘legal issues’ and running for cover.”

        You’re quite right; there are no ‘permissions’ issues here. I’ve worked as a permissions editor; myths aren’t in copyright . Certainly, there can be issues of cultural appropriation in the use of myth, but just because there are, doesn’t justify refusing to address them. We live in a culture where almost any cultural artefact will bear the trace of colonization; pretending you can skirt that fact is standard white privilege talking. Can you imagine a bunch of indigenous culture-workers choosing to bypass white culture?

        Cultural appropriation was a big deal in the 80s in the US and Canada (I worked there as an editor back then). It’s less of a deal now, but that has a lot to do with the venues available for indigenous writers, developed and nurtured by them.

        Good luck with the story; hope you find the right venue for it!

      • Colum Paget says:

        Hello Wendy,

        I have to say I think you are massively out of line calling these editors (whomever they are) ‘lazy’. Most spec-fic markets are for-the-love, and people are barely able to find time to do them anyways. As people lump arbitary responsiblities onto them, “You must look into this”, “You must consider that”, so it becomes less and less viable to run a market at all.

        This is a standard model that we see to squeeze the amatuer and small-businesses out. One changes the climate to require so much work to be done in terms of risk assessment that only large concerns can really do it.

        # We live in a culture where almost any
        # cultural artefact will bear the trace of
        # colonization; pretending you can skirt
        # that fact is standard white privilege
        # talking.

        This, I feel, is blaming the victim. People are trying to get an anthology going, someone comes along and scares the blue blazes out of them by telling them they’ll get in trouble over cultural apropriation. But in the end, it’s all their own fault, because they’re talking from a white standpoint.

        I agree that the editors are making a regrettable error, but I think I know what their experience will have been, and I understand where they are coming from. Likely someone beat them up over ‘cultural appropriation’, and they quite rightly thought “Well, we don’t want that to happen again”, but now they’ll get beaten up over exclusionism (if anyone can figure out who they are, for the time being they are safe under anonymity). After that, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just decide to shut down. Frankly, in the growing minefield that spec-fic is becoming, I’m surprised we’re not seeing an exodus away from it. Or, maybe we are?

        Instead of blaming the victim we should be trying to see if there’s anything we can do to advise or help these people. They’ve probably got a very poor understanding of the issues, and little idea where to start looking for information about them. Wendy, if you have information that would set their minds at rest , then you should probably pass it onto them via Tracie.

        I suspect you are right that there are no legal issues, but that someone has forcefully pursuaded them that there are, leading them to think that if they publish fiction with maori ‘intellectual property’ in it, they can expect waves of maori IP lawyers to descend upon them. The law is a closed book to most of us, and if these people are struggling to hold down a job, a family, and a spec-fic market, they really may not have time to investigate all the issues.

        What would be really helpful in situations like this, thinking of it, would be a website/page tht could act as a ‘central clearing house’ for issues like this. A place where people could go and find out what’s what. I know people will say ‘wikipedia’, but there’s plenty of articles on wikipedia that I’ve never been able to make sense of.

        Tracie, do you still have any contact to the maori community? Can we get some kind of idea what they think about all of this?


      • It’s a legal minefield, and I wholly defend the right of the publishers not to step into it, particularly when it’s a one-off anthology. Here are a few links to illustrate –
        Protocols for Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Iwi
        Law Library of Congress New Zealand – Maori Culture and Intellectual Property Law
        Trade Marks International Treaties and Enforcement Amendment Bill

        My interpretation of the above is that, as an indigenous person, I have the right to make use of my culture’s intellectual property. But my 100% Pakeha husband might not.

        Colum, part of the problem is that there is no such thing as “The Maori Community”. Each iwi (tribe) has its own beliefs and traditions, its own leaders, and approaches issues such as Intellectual Property Rights in different ways. Between and within tribes there is often dissent.

      • Colum Paget says:

        I can confirm that this is going on in the UK. I am indigenous, and people shun me, and my writings too!

      • Colum Paget says:

        I think the publishers are mostly coming from a position of “Eeekk! Someone told us all this scary stuff and we don’t want to know what to do about it, Run Away!” But I’m not criticising them for that, as I would do much the same thing, and do so more and more these days. We have lives to get on with and other things we need to do beyond our spec-fic hobby.

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