Bears, Bombs and Popcorn
Some considerations when mining other cultures for source materials, by Judith Berman
[The cover] painting is a made-up decoration merely done in Pacific Northwest style … meant to say to a reader “This novel is based on the mythology of the Pacific Northwest,” just as covers for other kinds of fantasy use images from Celtic, Norse, or Japanese mythologies to signal “pick me up” to the right kind of reader. ([Name withheld], p.c. Feb. 9, 2005)
In the background of the cover for my novel Bear Daughter sits an object that resembles a piece of Native American art. It looks, in fact, quite a bit like a painted wooden screen made by a Tlingit Indian artist in the early 19th century to represent the hereditary Bear crest of the Tlingit Naanyaa.aayí clan. That screen, now in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, formerly embellished the Ground Shark House in what is today Wrangell, Alaska.
Having worked for a number of years with traditional Tlingit art, I immediately recognized the resemblance of the cover image to the Naanyaa.aayí Bear screen. It also resembles, to a lesser degree, two other screens. The first of these, likely a copy of the Naanyaa.aayí screen, was made for the Killer Whale House of the Kaagwaantaan clan of Klukwan, probably in commemoration of the genealogical links between that house and Ground Shark House. The second, which the Naanyaa.aayí screen likely copied, is known only from a fragment preserved at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Upon seeing the cover, my first concern was that the background object might be another related Bear screen, one I didn’t know about. Tlingit clan heirlooms like these screens are the focus, today as formerly, of deep emotions about one’s connections to past and future generations. The right to display such heraldic designs is a hereditary prerogative often acquired–“paid for,” as it is sometimes said–through the blood of one’s ancestors. In earlier times wars were fought over misuse of crest objects. A validated Tlingit crest object, as I wrote to my publisher, is
like a national flag, a trademarked product logo, a memorial to dead relatives and ancestors, and a family heirloom with strong emotional associations, all rolled into one. There is variation across the [northwest coast] region in what these objects mean and how they are used, but the notion that they are in some fashion property and “copyrighted” is near-universal.
Some crest heirlooms remain in Native custody, like the Klukwan Bear screen. Many others, however, have found their way into museums and private collections. The means by which they have done so are frequently not pretty, and the objects have been the subject of repatriation claims and other legal actions. Given that the cover artist had likely used photographs as the source for the cover image, US copyright law, which extends to so-called “derivative” images of copyright materials, might also have been called into play. In short, using an image of genuine crest art on my book cover could have been problematic.
Continue reading “From Our Archive: Judith Berman on Cultural Appropriation”