These Mayan Weavers Could Be Paving the Way For Indigenous Communities to Trademark Their Work

Lead Photo: Photo: Erick Aspuac
Photo: Erick Aspuac
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“We are the descendants of the grandmothers who wouldn’t die. They live on in the universe through our weaving.” In one flier, the Asociación Femenina para el Desarrollo de Sacatepéquez (AFEDES) succinctly described the significance of traditional Mayan patterns. Unfortunately, both the Guatemalan government and other entities have blatantly co-opted these designs. As it stands, there’s not much indigenous groups can do to protect their cultural patrimony or to keep companies from ripping off their designs. There’s currently no law granting Mayan groups control over their own intellectual property. But Mayan communities are fighting to trademark their work, and they could be paving the way for other indigenous groups in the process.

This year, AFEDES – a collective of 1,000 indigenous women working toward social, political, and economic empowerment – has pushed to change a system that has long profited from Mayan groups and made it impossible for the creators to make economic gains. On November 24, hundreds of AFEDES members headed to Guatemala City to present Congress with numerous reforms that would ensure the protection of their designs, according to Toward Freedom.

Photo: Julien Lagarde
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“We came here to present this proposal so that our weavings will be respected,” 81-year-old Floratina, an indigenous Kaqchikel weaver, said. “We are struggling so that our craft does not end. We demand that our works are not taken to other countries to make money, and also that other countries do not come to take away our [weavings], as they always have had the custom of coming; and they continue to come, they do not stop. Now there are machines coming from China and Taiwan to make our weavings. We ask that the authorities respect our identity.” Whether or not congress passes the reforms depends on if it can get the necessary 105 votes.

This movement began picking up steam in May when indigenous activists gathered outside the Supreme Court. They testified at a public hearing in the constitutional court, fighting the commodification and cultural appropriation that poses a threat to their culture. Since then, the group’s numbers have grown. AFEDES now reps several groups throughout the country, including the Maya Kaqchikels, Kiches, Mams, Tz’utujiles, Pocomchís, and Sapatecos.

As AFEDES makes waves, the group may also present a case study in how indigenous peoples can win battles. Backed by the Association of Mayan Lawyers, the organization helps the weavers navigate the legal system. As lawyer Juan Castro states, its aim is to help indigenous peoples, so they can become the “authors and creators of their weavings.” While it still has a modest online audience, AFEDES has even used social media to distribute easy-to-digest visuals to spread its message. And just like with Standing Rock – where more than 200 tribes arrived to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe fighting for their right to clean water – this movement has shown the importance of indigenous groups uniting forces.

At its recent gathering, indigenous weavers came from Mexico to lend their support. As Toward Freedom notes, the Mexican and Guatemalan weavers realized the similarities in their struggles. “We are accompanied by a delegation of women from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico,” said Angelina Aspuac from AFEDES. “They want to know our experience because they have the same problem as here in Guatemala. We are having an exchange of experience. They are in the same struggle there in Mexico. The state always wants to try to take the cultural heritage from the communities. We are saying that this is the property of the communities. There are people in Mexico that are trying to dispossess the people from their ancestral knowledge.”

The cultural appropriation of indigenous prints isn’t an uncommon injustice. Just last year, Mexico’s Mixe community accused French designer Isabel Marant of stealing its huipil designs. Urban Outfitters also faced similar accusations in 2011. The Navajo Nation sued the brand for using the Navajo name to sell its clothing. In 2015, a court ruled that the Navajo name wasn’t famous enough, before the two sides ultimately settled this year.

In Guatemala, this lack of regulation has resulted in the misuse of sacred textiles – eg, tourists wearing patterns specifically reserved for high-ranking leaders. “This isn’t only the government, but more so, it is the companies that make bags, shoes, and belts with our designs without respecting how we see these pieces within our communities, or their significance in our communities,” Aspuac told Truthout. “These 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.”

The government is just as much to blame as the companies that pay indigenous weavers low wages for the straining work. (A güipil, for example, can require up to three months of weaving.) As the country sees a surge in tourism, indigenous culture has played an important role in drawing in visitors. At Panajachel Sololá, the wait staff wears clothing reserved only for spiritual guides. The Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo’s plasters imagery of Mayan women on its pamphlets. Jorge Mario Chajón, the director of tourism board Inguat, argues that it’s “not a mercantile entity, does not market, and does not obtain income from the sale of artisanal work.”

But Chajón’s statements don’t seem to take into consideration the government’s history of encroaching on indigenous groups’ rights. Inguat may not directly profit from the sale of Mayan textiles. But it’s using something deeply personal (and something that doesn’t belong to them) to appeal to visitors – even though this same traditional dress led to the oppression of Mayan populations, especially during the country’s brutal civil war.

Photo: Julien Lagarde
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Between 1960 and 1996, 200,000 people were killed – 83 percent of whom were Mayan. As JoAnn DiGeorgio-Lutz and Donna Gosbee’s book Women and Genocide: Gendered Experiences of Violence, Survival, and Resistance states, indigenous women gave up their traditional outfits for their own safety. “Mayan women in rural areas wore traditional dress as a symbolic marker of their identity within a family group and village,” the book reads. “This, however, changed out of necessity during the civil war… Out of necessity as a survival tactic, women abandoned their traditional dress because it could readily identify them to the marauding army as a member of a particular Mayan group.”

And yet the government chooses to use indigenous patterns to promote tourism, while failing to put in a system that gives them autonomy. That’s why five years ago, a company tried to dictate to indigenous women who they could and couldn’t sell their patterns to. In their current climate, they’re at the bottom, even though it’s their labor and culture that’s pushed to the forefront. In the meantime, Mayan groups feel threatened, as though their heritage is slipping away.

“The system is quietly dispossessing us of our identity,” Petzey Quiejú said. “The government has influenced this process. When they publish various materials in the Guatemalan tourism ministry, INGUAT, they are objectifying the real significance of our weavings. It is necessary to defend our weavings. So they recognize that this is more than just work, it is our identity, it is our history, and it is the knowledge of our communities. As of now, the valorization of this is not happening.”