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Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous Knowledge

An Overview of Indigenous Knowledge 

The tension between Indigenous Knowledge and Canadian copyright law 

Indigenous Knowledge has no one set definition. It is defined differently in different societies and cultures. As a broad stroke, UNESCO defines Indigenous Knowledge as referring “to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by society with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings”. These understandings, skills and philosophies can be found in Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions.

  • Traditional Knowledge is generally defined as the know-how, skills, innovations and practices developed by Indigenous peoples.
  • Traditional Cultural Expressions are generally understood as the tangible and intangible forms in which traditional knowledge is expressed and may include oral stories, artwork, handicrafts, dances, fabric, songs or ceremonies. Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions are often (but not always) collectively held, and may evolve over time as they are passed down between generations; they are often viewed as a living body of knowledge that is not static.

In its current form, the Copyright Act does not protect Indigenous Knowledge as copyright law is based on a system of individual and independent ownership. Indigenous Knowledge often has collective/communal ownership or no identifiable creator(s) and dates back many generations, all of which negate copyright protections. How does this relate to Mount Royal University? This can lead students, instructors, and researchers to mistakenly treat Indigenous Knowledge as if it is in the public domain, ignoring the Indigenous laws under which it operates.

A great deal of Indigenous Knowledge was never intended to be externally accessible, but has nevertheless been made so. Examples include:

  • sacred ceremonial masks
  • ceremonies, songs, and dances
  • shamanic art
  • sacred stories and prayers objects with spiritual significance
  • sacred symbols, designs, crests, medicines, and motifs


United Nations and Canadian Legislation

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was passed in 2007. While UNDRIP was not a law in itself, it was meant to guide nations in implementing laws protecting their Indigenous peoples. This included protections for intellectual property (see Article 31).

Indigenous artists brought their concerns forward during the 2018 review of the Canadian Copyright Act. The following recommendation was included in the Standing Committee of Industry, Science and Technology final report on the review:

"Recommendation #5:

  • That the Government of Canada consult with Indigenous groups, experts, and other stakeholders on the protection of traditional arts and cultural expressions in the context of Reconciliation, and that this consultation address the following matters, among others: The recognition and effective protection of traditional arts and cultural expressions in Canadian law, within and beyond copyright legislation;
  • The participation of Indigenous groups in the development of national and international intellectual property law;
  • The development of institutional, regulatory, and technological means to protect traditional arts and cultural expressions..."

The review of the Canadian Copyright Act did not occur that year after a change in government. It was not until December 2020 that the Liberal Government introduced Bill C-15, one meant to bring Canada into alignment with UNDRIP (and to uphold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action regarding Indigenous Knowledge). This bill was passed in June 2021. As of now, there has not been any changes to the Copyright Act to follow the Federal UNDRIP Bill. Advocacy to amend the Copyright Act to include acknowledgement of and respect for Indigenous Knowledge is ongoing.

These efforts include, but are not limited to:


Some of the information in this Indigenous Knowledge section has been adapted from the University of Saskatchewan’s "Indigenous Knowledges and Canadian Copyright Law", licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.

Respecting Indigenous Knowledge 

Get permission

When selecting resources try to locate authentic Indigenous Knowledge, and make sure you are treating it in a respectful manner. Often there are local cultural protocols around the use of Indigenous Knowledge, even when it has been (via permission or not) posted online. You should always try to obtain permission when using any form of Traditional Knowledge, including cultural materials or practices such as legends, stories, songs, designs, crests, photographs, audiovisual materials, and dances from affected individuals, artists, families, Elders, hereditary Chiefs, Band Councils, or Tribal Councils prior to use. Some Indigenous Knowledge resources may contain Traditional Knowledge Labels. And the terms of those labels should be followed.


Avoid cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the use of Indigenous Knowledge without permission or regard for the cultural system from which it originated. It typically occurs when the original meaning and context of the Indigenous Knowledge has been lost, simplified, characterized, or distorted, regardless of whether it is presented in a positive light, and may be viewed as insulting or offensive to the affected Indigenous group.

For so many years, the cultures of Indigenous groups and Indigenous people of Canada have been stripped from them because of the Indian Act enacted in 1876, residential schools (1880s to late the 1990s) and the Sixties Scoop. In its own way, cultural appropriation is a continuation of this mistreatment.

What about cultural appreciation? Author and radio host Rosanna Deerchild states that cultural appreciation, "truly honours our nations’ arts and cultures. You take the time to learn and interact, to gain understanding of a culture, or cultures, different from your own. It is a cultural exchange based on mutual respect and the key is consent and participation. If it is about us, it must include us.” (CBC, 2017).


Respectful use 

When considering using Indigenous Knowledge in research, teaching, etc., it should always be done with respect. Brigitte Vézina’s paper discusses a moral rights approach to respecting Indigenous cultures. Moral rights are part of copyrights in Canada and they grant creators the right of attribution (or paternity) and integrity.

“[Traditional Cultural Expressions - TCEs] are often interwoven with cultural significance as well as spiritual or sacred meaning. They are also expressed and preserved according to traditions that may be executed and transmitted only within fixed parameters. Maintaining the overall integrity, context and holistic essence of TCEs is fundamental for the proper representation of Indigenous cultures. When TCEs are used in derogatory, offensive or fallacious ways, that meaning is diluted — indeed, lost” (Vézina, 2020).

To learn more about how you can respectfully use Indigenous Knowledge, see the following resources:

  • Antoine, A., Mason, R., Mason, R., Palahicky, S. & Rodriguez de France, C. (2018). Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers. Victoria, BC: BCcampus.
  • Udy, V. (2014). The appropriation of Aboriginal cultural heritage: Examining the uses and pitfalls of the Canadian intellectual property regime. Robic.
  • Vézina, B. (2020). Ensuring respect for Indigenous cultures: A moral rights approach. Centre for International Governance Innovation, 243.


Use authentic, reliable, unbiased resources (especially when searching on the Internet)

In some instances, works that deal with or contain Indigenous Knowledge may include inaccurate information or unfairly represent the unique experiences and world views of the particular Indigenous Peoples. Using such resources can further harmful stereotypes and misunderstandings. In contrast, authentic resources can deepen understanding by bringing Indigenous voices and perspectives into your own work. Always try to go to the original Indigenous group and make sure you obtain explicit permission for your exact use.

Additional resources 

MRU supports

  • Iniskim Centre: The Iniskim Centre offers programs and services to increase the engagement and success of Indigenous students while also raising awareness of Indigenous peoples and cultures.
  • Jessie Loyer's Indigenous Studies LibGuide: This guide is a starting point to find research in Indigenous Studies. Indigenous Studies is an interdisciplinary field grounded in the languages, histories, geographies, and contemporary experiences of Indigenous Peoples.
  • office of Indigenization and decolonization: offers a lens through which the MRU community can understand decolonization and Indigenization and ensure every student has the best educational experience possible.
  • Journey to Indigenization: An opportunity to learn directly from elders, participate in Indigenous scholarship, or show support for Indigenous communities.




Respectful use

  • Appropriate Use of Indigenous Content (BC Campus): Outlines the use of authentic Indigenous resources into the curriculum in a respectful way. The information is intended to support the systemic change occurring across post-secondary institutions through Indigenization, decolonization, and reconciliation.
  • Ensuring Respect for Indigenous Cultures A Moral Rights Approach: This paper examines the issue of cultural appropriation and the misuse of Indigenous artworks across various mediums. It explores the use of copyright's moral rights approach, which focuses on acknowledging, respecting, and preserving the integrity of traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) as a means to protect and address cultural theft.
  • Indigenous Protocols for the Visual Arts: Resource for navigating Indigenous Protocols for visual artists and the artistic community. Designed to help Indigenous artists protect their work and to educate non-Indigenous individuals and organizations about respectful engagement and collaboration with Indigenous Peoples.
  • Community first: Open practices and Indigenous Knowledge: Outlines best practices for using and creating open educational resources (OER) that include Indigenous Knowledges.




Citation and style guides 

Legal notice

The advice, information, and opinions on this LibGuide are not intended to constitute nor do they replace legal advice and they do not create an attorney-client relationship. Please consult with a lawyer for legal matters.