Protect Whang-Od and our “National Cultural Treasures” from exploitation

Senator Imee Marcos has reprised her call last year to create a law that protects indigenous peoples (IPs) against the “misappropriation of cultural heritage,” amid the controversy between world-famous Kalinga mambabatok (tattooist) Whang-Od and popular vlogger Nas Daily.

A supposed contract thumb marked by the 104-year-old Whang-Od to teach a “tattoo masterclass” online has sparked her grandniece’s allegations of a scam against Nas Daily, who said he had meant to promote a waning tradition and to share proceeds from the Php750 paid by each subscriber.

Marcos, who chairs the Senate committee on cultural communities, emphasized the importance of cultural sensitivity to IPs, especially where self-promotion and commercial profit were involved.

“The problem is we have no legal definition of what constitutes cultural misappropriation. Until we do, our IPs will remain exposed to continual exploitation,” Marcos said.

“Indigenous people have felt misrepresented, even robbed of their customs, traditions, and forms of expression which have spiritual value but are treated by city folk as mere objects of aesthetic appreciation or potential commodities,” Marcos added.

“This is not the first time that Apo Whang-Od seems to have been trivialized,” Marcos said, citing past complaints by the Kalinga Tourism Services for the New Era Cap Co.’s collection of Whang-Od t-shirts.

Tribal leaders had also complained about Tribu Nation’s line of sandals that used the Kankana-ey name, apart from two other lines named after the Yakan of Basilan and the Manobo of Northern Mindanao.

Marcos added that the T’boli community in southwestern Mindanao had also been outraged by the use of their sacred T’nalak textile for a line of shoes.

These incidents had led Marcos to file Senate Resolution 517 last September, which calls for an inquiry towards crafting a law that would articulate and penalize the misappropriation of indigenous cultural heritage.

“We need a new IPO (Intellectual Property Office) framework allowing firstly communal intellectual property and not merely individual IP ownership. Further, indigenous peoples must own these cultural assets in perpetuity, not for a mere period of time as presently stated in our intellectual property laws,” Marcos explained. ###