Indigenous Mayan weavers in Guatemala have, for a few years now, been fighting a battle that we’ll all be fighting in the not-too-distant future. On 6 May 2016, hundreds of them gathered outside the Guatemalan supreme court to demand official recognition they own the sacred woven patterns that they’ve been making for generations.
Indigenous Mayan weavers in Guatemala, demand official recognition they own the sacred woven patterns. These patterns they’ve been making for generations define the community’s identity.
Indigenous Mayan weavers are fighting for control of the artefacts that have been part of their identity for generations.
These patterns define the community’s identity. “There are elements of our clothing that are sacred, that have a spiritual significance, and others that are only used in ceremonies or by the spiritual leaders in our communities,” Angelina Aspuac of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez told Truth-out.org. But there are currently no legal protections under Guatemalan law for the intellectual property rights of indigenous clothing patterns.
That has resulted in a situation where transnational companies are profiting from these weavings without respecting their significance in indigenous communities. In one notorious example in 2011, Guatemalan fashion designer Giovanni Guzmán was roundly condemned by indigenous representatives for clothing the country’s contestant in the Miss Universe beauty pageant in the sacred patterns of the male spiritual leaders from the K’iche’ Maya town of Chichicastenango.
There are many objects in our lives that we treasure because they define part of our identity – informal types of identity as much as the formal kind embodied in a card or document.
Emrys Schoemaker from Caribou Digital says
“We’ve seen a social shift towards individualism and individual expression, and one of the ways in which we define who we are is the things that we buy and the things that we wear.”
But what happens when those objects, or the context around them, changes? A heavy metal fan who’s uncomfortable with Iron Maiden t-shirts being sold in Topshop, or inspiring tour merchandise for Justin Bieber, can begin to get a sense of how Mayan weavers might feel when they see their spiritual leaders’ clothes on Miss Guatemala. When the popular perception of the artefacts that we use to define ourselves shifts from cultural to merely transactional – where they become economic units, thought of primarily in terms of their economic value – it erodes that part of our identity.
This is not a new process – it’s happened many times throughout history. Coats of arms, for example, came into general use in the 12th century as an identity artefact – they were a practical way of telling knights apart on the battlefield when clad in huge suits of armour. By the 13th century they had become an emblem for European families of higher social status, inherited from the father and passed on to the son. As their use was strictly regulated, they could still be used in identification, particularly in seals on legal documents. They were a symbol of both power and pride.
Over the centuries, however, the value a coat of arms holds in society became massively diminished. Royalty, who controlled their allocation, began to grant arms to the clergy, then to towns as civic identifiers, then to royally chartered universities or trading companies. They became national and then local flags. Soon, arms were everywhere – you can trace a clear line all the way from the modern corporate logo to the oldest heraldry in the world. Today, you can create your own crest in two minutes with an online family crest generator.
The loss of control, this shift from identify artefacts being cultural to being transactional, occurs everywhere.
This loss of control, this shift from identify artefacts being cultural to being transactional, occurs everywhere. Facebook is a great modern example. Facebook began a mere decade ago as a way for college students to express themselves and communicate with friends. People proudly displayed their favourite movies, music and books on their profile, and chose which pictures were allowed to appear – all ways of curating one’s public digital identity.
Most personal of all was the “relationship status” feature. In 2010, Samuel Axon at Mashable wrote: “Who pulls the trigger to make a relationship official on Facebook first? It would be embarrassing to declare yourself to be in a relationship if your (you thought) significant other doesn’t reciprocate. Changing Facebook relationship status has, for better or worse, joined first date, first kiss, first night together, exclusivity talk, and first ‘I love you’ on the list of important relationship milestones.”
Then it dropped off that list again, almost as quickly. As Facebook shifted away from being a home for cultural self-expression to its current incarnation as a transactional identity system – where our profiles are more and more frequently used to access other services, from signing up to third-party websites to paying for things in “real life” like cabs or food delivery – it’s been accompanied by a fall in the amount of information that users share with each other. There is even evidence that the youngest Facebook users have seen how much their parents and older siblings have been sharing, and, aware of the cost to privacy and identity, are drawn to more ephemeral social networks like Snapchat as a result. “Maybe we’ve just decided that our online presence should benefit us, not those who want a two-click rundown of our personal lives,” wrote Barbara Speed in the New Statesman in 2016.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world where being on Facebook is near-universal, profiles are increasingly required for using vital apps and services – necessitating participation in a digital identity system that some of us are increasingly uncomfortable with, while others are unaware that their information is being used in a transactional way.
“The private sector are using social media as the basis for credit scoring to provide cheap loans, for example,” says Schoemaker. “People unwittingly reveal unbelievable amounts and aspects of their identity, and are very unaware of how much they’re revealing and who has access to it.”
This is the unfortunate flipside of investing in some object or artefact as an aspect of our identity, where trusting in an object to respect and reflect our inner self can be turned against us for profit or control. It’s something which any government needs to be mindful of when designing an identity scheme, too – the things that people feel most reflect their identities, and which they would want to share about themselves, aren’t necessarily the same as the things which prove identity in a legal sense. Forcing personal identity artefacts to become transactional can be alienating, or frustrating, as our research has found.
It’s possible for things to swing back in the other direction. The white lab coat started out as a marketing gimmick – a way for a 19th-century medical establishment to put aside its history of quackery and mysticism and take on an image of scientific rigour. It was firmly a transactional garment. But today, the white lab coat is an identity artefact beloved of doctors around the world, and ritualistic wearing it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the medical profession.
The key question is that of control. Those that control an identity artefact will use it for their own ends, regardless of the feelings of those who value it. The royalty who controlled the distribution of heraldry used it to reward their political allies. Internet firms like Facebook and Google, which control the information we give them, will use that information for profit – no matter how we feel about that.
INTERVIEW WITH SUMITRA DIDI, ARTIST
“I am an artist. My identity is in my art, my entire family works on these arts.”
“We will grow old but our art will survive through our children and their children.”
“If you control what the artefact is, you’re controlling a huge part of the nature of a relationship and a key part and experience of what identity means,” says Schoemaker. “Being able to control what people know about you is quite important for our wellbeing. The degree to which individuals have agency over privacy, and what people know about them, has a direct implication on the quality of dignity that they experience.”
“If you control what the artefact is, you’re controlling a huge part of the nature of a relationship and a key part and experience of what identity means,”
That’s why indigenous Mayan weavers are fighting for control of the artefacts that have been part of their identity for generations – to regain that control. It’s a fight that will come to all of us, sooner or later.