by Catherine Bell and Val Napoleon (eds). Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008. 544pp. Cloth. CDN$85.00/US$98.00. ISBN: 9780774814614. Paper. CDN$34.95/US$39.95. ISBN: 9780774814621.

Reviewed by Anthony J. Connolly, Law School, Australian National University. Email: tony.connolly [at]


The topic of indigenous rights has gained an increasingly prominent place in the law and politics of many nation states over the past decade or so, as well as well as at the international level. With the adoption by the United Nations in 2007 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this trend seems set to develop even further. Amongst the many dimensions of the topic, those concerning the recognition, protection and repatriation of indigenous cultural heritage are of particular note. The phenomena comprising indigenous cultural heritage include tangible things such as sites and landscapes of spiritual, historic, social and economic significance, culturally significant objects and artefacts, and human remains, as well as intangibles such as indigenous languages, knowledge, stories, songs, and designs.

As Catherine Bell and Val Napoleon’s book makes compellingly clear, the importance of their cultural heritage to many indigenous peoples lies in the fact that for them that heritage serves as the fundamental expression of – indeed, in many cases, the very foundation of – their collective identity as a people. And this identity serves, in turn, to ground all the other claims and interests – all the other rights they assert in the world as indigenous peoples: rights to land, to political self-determination, to proper participation in wider polities, and to an appropriate degree of recognition and respect, more generally. Cultural heritage matters to indigenous peoples. Its recognition and protection is a necessary condition of their survival and well-being as indigenous peoples. So too, it matters to those non-indigenous persons who care about that survival and well-being.

For such persons and, indeed, for anyone interested in issues to do with indigenous culture and rights, whether they be students, academics, lawyers, anthropologists, museum professionals, social workers, or policy makers, this book provides a distinctive and valuable set of resources for deepening their understanding of those issues. It is, quite simply, one of the most innovative, interesting, and (though I am reluctant to use the term in an academic piece) inspiring books on indigenous rights that I have read. It operates on a complex and fascinating range of levels and establishes a new and quite exciting framework, I think, for researching and writing about indigenous affairs within an academic context. It is at one and the same time a work of oral history, anthropological case study and analysis, philosophical reflection, policy retrospective, law reform manifesto, and – in some of those parts transcribing the ideas and words of indigenous people [*304] themselves – strikingly poignant literature.

The book has something valuable to say about a range of issues associated with the broad topic of indigenous cultural heritage, including the difficulties of repatriating indigenous artefacts and human remains from non-indigenous possession; the past, present and future role of museums in relation to the protection and repatriation of indigenous heritage; the various modes of appropriation of intangible indigenous heritage by non-indigenous agents and institutions; the social and economic costs to indigenous people of seeking the repatriation and protection of their heritage; and the conceptual and practical obstacles that stand in the way, generally, of adequate and appropriate recognition and protection of indigenous heritage. Notwithstanding its Canadian roots, this is a book that will be of great value to indigenous people and those otherwise interested in indigenous rights and culture all over the world.

The book comprises a collection of essays written by an array of indigenous and non-indigenous authors. It is the result of a six year collaborative process involving academic and practicing lawyers, anthropologists, social workers, and, most importantly, a selection of the indigenous people of Canada (particularly, indigenous elders) and is the first of a pair of books on the topic. It opens with a preface and detailed introductory essay which together outline the history and methodology of the research, writing and publishing process associated with the book and articulate the ethical and political values which inform that process. Unusually, perhaps, I found the discussion of the project’s methodology to be one of the most interesting and valuable parts of the book. It is a methodology which addresses head-on the critical challenges posed by collaborative cross-cultural research in both a theoretically sophisticated and eminently practical way. As a result, the book displays a fascinating mix of identities, operating as an analysis of indigenous cultural heritage and its legal and policy environment; as a reflexive commentary on and inquiry into the very project of compiling such a book; and as a demonstration and artefact of how best to go about that project.

At the heart of the book’s methodology lies a commitment to ensuring the “active and meaningful” involvement of its indigenous participants in all stages of the research process: a methodological commitment which is entirely consistent with the substantive ethical and political values informing the book. From the project design phase, through the funding application phase, to the active interviewing phase, on through the collating and analysis of information gained and into the writing up phase, and beyond this into even the publishing and copyright negotiation phases, the indigenous people at the heart of this book have been empowered to deliberate, participate, and otherwise maintain a significant degree of ‘ownership’ of the project and its products. Further, throughout the process efforts were made to ensure that it complied with relevant indigenous laws and protocols. In this respect, the book provides a self-reflective and well documented paradigm for others researching indigenous issues. The book is an exercise in cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration, something to which [*305] theorists in the social sciences often pay lip service but too rarely put into practice in their research and writing.

Following the introductory essay, Part 1 of the book comprises a series of discrete case studies, articulating and analysing the views and experiences of six Canadian indigenous groups in relation to their own cultural heritage. These case studies form the substantive core of the book and serve as the focus of later more reflective and theory-based essays. It is in the case studies that the main themes of the book come to life in detailed and vivid accounts of the nature and significance of indigenous cultural heritage and associated indigenous law and practice; of the history of the treatment of that heritage by the Canadian state and non-indigenous society together with indigenous responses to that treatment; and of the strategies indigenous people themselves have formulated for future law and public policy reform in this field, as well as the challenges facing those strategies.

In these case studies, abstract issues of theory, law and policy take on a personal, human dimension. Further, though, in each of them the views and stories of the indigenous participants are carefully supplemented with an informed and sensitive linking discussion (historical, legal and theoretical) provided by the essay authors. The book mediates academic description, explanation and analysis with communal autobiography. It conveys an understanding of the issues not merely through presenting facts and analysing and explaining them, but through giving expression to the beliefs and values of the most important participants in those issues – indigenous people. Though there are clear commonalities of concern amongst the various groups encountered in the case studies, one of the most significant aspects of the book is its articulation of the subtle differences in conception and concern maintained by the indigenous groups involved. In this respect, the book acts to subvert the homogenising and stereotyping tendencies often maintained by non-indigenous readers in relation to the experiences and practices of indigenous peoples.

Part 2 of the book comprises a solitary essay providing an overview of a number of initiatives and outcomes relating to cultural heritage protection and repatriation in Canada over the past twenty years. Its professed intention is to enable readers to explore and reflect upon repatriation and protection issues beyond those detailed in the case studies. Its key value – for this reader at least – is in providing an analytical and law and policy rich backdrop for better understanding the earlier case studies.

The concluding Part 3 comprises three essays in which a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous thinkers reflect upon a small number of key themes arising out of the case studies. These themes have to do with the place of language within indigenous culture, the history and effects of State assimilationist policies on indigenous peoples and their heritage, and the ubiquitous issue of conceptual difference and its limits. The last of these essays by Brian Noble on the politics of conceptual difference, in particular, is outstanding. This is, at its heart, a book about cultural difference – conceptual, practical, and institutional – as well as the possibility of overcoming it to some mutually satisfactory degree. [*306] Noble’s piece, when read in conjunction with the case studies, conveys a clear and compelling sense of the nature and importance of the issues in this regard.

To sum up, I think the book is an important contribution to the increasing body of indigenous rights literature which is likely to influence the course of future academic inquiry into this topic. The editors and participants are to be congratulated on their remarkable efforts and achievement.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Anthony J. Connolly.