The Rights of the Shaman is a term paper I wrote when I returned to graduate school during the mid 1990s.
This paper began as part of a much larger review of the various issues faced by indigenous cultures related to their natural resources utilization. At the time, it was seven years since the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit on the Amazon Rainforest made its debut in this country at the local forestry center. As Portland State University’s lecturer and researcher specializing in plant medicines and natural resource products, I developed a display on rainforest products that included some of the most important products in the food and medical industries, including Cola nitida nut, Strychnos nux-vomica bean, Banisteriopsis twigs, Lignum vitae, Squill bulb pieces, Cinchona bark, Guaiacum gum-resin, Piper cubeba, Castor beans, Caffea arabica beans, Cacao bean, whole Nutmeg, Mexican White Cinnamon bark, Vanilla bean, Achras sapota chicle, part of a Hevea rubber latex brick, a number of tropic wood samples, several water color paintings, etc.
When I returned to classes at the university where I taught, my years of experience as a lecturer and researcher in another department on campus was unknown to some of my newest professors. This led to some clashes now and then due to age proximity and differences in opinions that surfaced every now and then regarding this particular specialty, which both of us were recognized specialists in.
When I handed in the first term paper, it reviewed this topic along with other important issues such as the effects of the production of a tourist industry on cultural survival, indigenous peoples’ health and the related human genome rights, rights to living plant materials for plant tissue culture derived products, the notion of intellectual property rights as it related to indigenous people, the rights to lay claim to earnings made using particular indigenous products as products for sale, the rights for drug companies to lay claim to indigenous knowledge and the related flora uses, etc.
I tried on several occasions to winnow this paper down to briefer arguments as requested by the professor, but to no avail. As a result there are papers as well on several other unique aspects of this issue that I tried covering independently. During this time, I knew that the most controversial topic I had grasped onto pertained to the rights of indigenous people to practice their own cultural medicine. Due to the way the course was going, the professor seemed to be a little too much into the WHO and UN programs to be much in favor of the indigenous side of this issue, and so I tried to avoid this topic for the time being.
In the end, this is the last version of a term paper I turned in for the course, more than a year after it was over. I was not so much arguing that western medicine should be prevented for influencing indigenous cultures, only that there were certain aspects of indigenous culture and knowledge or intellectual property that they were responsible for and therefore should benefit from, including economically. Lumping all of these together into this essay, I assigned it the unique and symbolic title The Rights of the Shaman.
This is the last version of the long termpaper that I wrote more than a years earlier, which I handed in just before graduating from the school with my first MS degree in August 2000. The professor never approved my paper and offer me a grade change. But since the credits from this course were not required for completion and graduation, I never entered this course on my papers submitted for graduation, and allowed the “Incomplete” grade to remain as a reminder of that symbolic event. I continued on into my MPH program, beginning with a course on mindbody healing along with others, graduating from that program two years later.
The Rights of the Shaman
- The right to personal knowledge born as intellectual property.
- The right to natural resource use, exploration, and exploitation.
- The right to practice indigenous medicine.
- The right to possession of one’s genetic make-up or personal human genome and the products thereof.
A number or rights are implied by the above four statements. These may be stated as follows:
Other Implied Rights
- The right to make use of knowledge in the form of traditional medicine.
- The right to practice traditional medicine according to core beliefs and principles believed in and adhered to for generations.
- The right to lay claim to the values of plants discovered through traditions and the uses engaged in as a part of these traditions and core philosophy.
- The right to lay claim to any processes or products invented due to these practices engaged in a part of the indigenous lifestyle.
- The right to lay claim to any inventions that ensue due directly to these indigenous discoveries.
The last of the first four claims has quite a controversy attached to it. Essentially it is a attempt to say that if a gene can be identified that makes a person an all-knowing shaman, a creative artist, a brilliant ecologist, an eidetic thinker, or able to live to 120 years of age, and if that gene can be described in terms of its ATCG so to speak, a claim may be laid to it by the holder of that DNA chain of knowledge.
The rights to own or possess particular aspects of the human genome by individuals who themselves don’t physically and physiologically own that material is the issue at hand. This proposal to patent human genetics was made by Harvard university professors in the 1980s, and focused on the intelligence and skills of a shaman being researched. We can contrast this late 20th century ideology with similar behaviors regarding genes existing 150 years earlier by professors at Cornell University, New York. The invention and patent was for a new breed of cattle developed that produce larger amounts of milk. After patenting it, the university allowed it to be used by whomever wished to take advantage of this invention at no cost. This freedom to make use of an animal genetic trait conflicts with the more theoretical, obscure philosophy used to define who has the rights to claiming the most important features of a human body. This philosophy essentially turned the human body into just a set of chemicals, tissues and organs, and is hopefully just a symbolic attempt made to serve as an example.
The issues reviewed in this paper cover such things as the WHO and UNESCO programs out there designed to assist in meeting global economic and health needs, while not restricting the goals of the other international programs out there. The important laws passed to deal with these matters are covered, along with laws related to intellectual property rights, the rights to patent plants in various ways the drug patent laws, and the types of knowledge that are copyrightable and patentable. Cultural rights, cultural definition, cultural politics are discussed as well.
The time period of this review does not include what is happening in this program today. At the time this article was written, an industry had just formed that supposed allowed for products to be made using indigenous products,with a certain except of the earnings made returned to the indigenous people. The success of this industry has not been followed up on, to see if it was only just a symbol of such claims in disguise.
Other topics reviewed while trying to piece everything together for this paper included:
- Longevity gene
- Indigenous health controversies
- The influences of diet upon health
- New World Syndrome
- The role of philosophy and belief in healing
- Preliminary work on culturally-bound syndromes
As I mentioned, there was more to being able to submit this paper for completion than simply producing a succinct termpaper less than a given number of pages, or having to focus on a particular aspect of the broader topic I was covering. In the end, it was obvious there was a little bit of personal differences interfering with this process, since I was a professor in another department for nearly 20 years by the time I enrolled in this program. My subject of interest and expertise was in fact medicinal plants, which didn’t help this matter any. So be it, personality differences in the end perhaps prevented me from ever getting a grade for this particular course. The following are other versions of this final project, which are in descending chronological order (going back in time for the most part.)