For the first time, Crees and other First Nations have met with a United Nations agency to spell out intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples.

At present, protections are unclear for the intellectual property rights of holders of traditional indigenous knowledge.

Cree officials held a first meeting on November 30 in Montreal with Shakeel Bhatti, associate officer of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations.

The meeting was part of eight fact-finding missions by the WIPO to gather input from Aboriginal nations around the world. The organization wants to take steps to offer better protection to indigenous intellectual rights. Corporations are increasingly looking to Aboriginal peoples to commercialize their knowledge, cultural property and even their genetic codes, or DNA.

At this meeting, Bhatti got to meet Elders Robbie and Sally Matthew, Smally and Laurie Petawabano, and Robbie and Elizabeth Dick, as well as Philip Awashish, Robert Kanatewat and Janie Pachano.

“It is a direct dialogue between us and the holders of the traditional knowledge,” said Bhatti.

Bhatti said in an interview he found the Crees to be “extremely well-organized and advanced in their thinking.” He said his trip to Canada “has been a rich and rewarding experience to learn from First Nations in Canada regarding their past experiences.”

Concern is growing among First Nations around the world about bio-medical and other corporations as well as governments that are rapidly attempting to claim ownership of
genetic material, herbs, herbal extracts, food, plants, plant fibers, reproductive procedures under the title of “intellectual property rights.”

“The Maori of New Zealand, for example, have claimed guardianship over Native animals and plants and international intellectual property rights over Maori traditional material such as mythology, carvings and patterns.

Then there’s what was nicknamed the “Vampire project,” or the Human Genome Diversity Project. It’s an international genetic research project which plans to collect DNA samples from about 500 hundred indigenous communities around the world for research within five years.

Three recent cases show indigenous concerns for patenting of genetic material. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Commerce filed a patent claim on the cell line of a 26-year Guaymi Aboriginal woman from Panama. Action by the Guaymi General Congress and international protest led to the withdrawal of the patent claim.

The Commerce Dept, then filed patent claims on the human cell lines of an indigenous person from the Solomon Islands. The patent claim was later abandoned.

In 1994, the U.S. Dept, of Health and Human Services and National Institutes of Health (NIH) were also granted patents on the cell line of a Hagahai man from Papua New Guinea. The NIH abandoned the patent in late 1996.

First Nations peoples widely criticized such projects for their treatment of indigenous peoples as mere research subjects.