Case Study: Simon Fraser University

Last updated on March 21, 2022


The Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project (2008–2016) was an international, multi-sectoral research collaboration based at Simon Fraser University (SFU), directed by Dr. George Nicholas. The project was designed to build research, knowledge, and resource foundations to assist scholars, institutions, descendant communities, policymakers, and other stakeholders in negotiating equitable and successful research policies and practices in the realm of cultural heritage. Through partnerships with Indigenous communities (and others), the use of reflexive and participatory research methodologies, and dynamic intercultural and interdisciplinary exchanges, the IPinCH project examined intellectual property (IP) dilemmas arising over issues of control related to specific forms of cultural knowledge, how that knowledge is used, who has access, and who benefits.

The research team consisted of 52 team members from 20 universities in 8 countries: 23 archaeologists from diverse subfields; 9 cultural anthropologists; 11 legal scholars and lawyers specializing in IP or Indigenous Rights; 4 ethicists and/or philosophers; and specialists in cultural tourism, museum studies, ethnobiology, open-access to knowledge, and other fields; plus 30 graduate students; and 98 Associate members from around the world. In addition, the community-based initiatives funded by IPinCH (see below) involved community researchers, elders, and youth. The team worked with 25 partner organizations, which included Parks Canada, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the Arctic Studies Center (Smithsonian Institution), the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies (Japan), the World Archaeological Congress, and the Sto:lo Research and Resource Management Centre, amongst others.

IPinCH-funded  12 Community-Based Initiatives situated within Indigenous communities around the world and six special initiatives ( Each project was co-developed with the community partners who were fully involved in developing research questions, methods, and outputs, and reviewing project data before it was made public. These community-based initiatives targeted a wide range of issues, including:

  • Developing protocols to work with ancestral remains;
  • Creating tribal IP review boards;
  • Establishing protocols for outsiders who work with culturally sensitive sites or information;
  • Integrating traditional cultural principles and ways of knowing in local management decisions and government consultations;
  • Developing means to repatriate and restore knowledge from materials in museum collections to the community; and
  • Creating co-management plans with state agencies to protect the intangible values of culturally significant places.

In general, these initiatives are sustainable, culturally appropriate, and community-embedded projects that address the preservation and educational use of IP and cultural heritage. In a number of these projects, elders and youth worked together to collect, inventory, and preserve traditional knowledge.

IPinCH also worked with university ethics offices to help develop or refine research policies and funding transfers to facilitate research involving First Nations by promoting four elements of equitable research: reconciliation, relationships, responsibility, and respect. There are substantial challenges to community-based research, including: mutual understanding of research needs, goals, methods, and outcomes;  trust and respect, and cultural differences, which may be substantial,  but not always apparent. University policies thus need to recognize things often take much longer than anticipated due to difficulties in transferring funds from university to Aboriginal organizations and the need to overcome wariness of “collaborative” projects in which academics do not control the process or outcomes.

Outcomes of the project included:

  • International conferences, symposia, and workshops on such topics as “DNA and Indigeneity: The Changing Role of Genetics in Indigenous Rights, Tribal Belonging, and Repatriation, and “Cultural Commodification, Indigenous Peoples & Self-Determination”;
  • The Declaration on the Safeguarding of Indigenous Ancestral Burial Grounds as Sacred Sites and Cultural Landscapes,” which was developed to help protect threatened heritage places;
  • The Think Before You Appropriate: A Guide for Creators and Designers booklet, designed to help avoid cultural appropriation in the fashion industry but also has much wider applications;
  • The blog series “Appropriation (?) of the Month,” which explored how and why cultural appropriations are often complex;
  • Almost 100 videos, 15 podcasts, and dozens of interviews and media reports on heritage-related issues; and
  • A wide array of resources for Indigenous community members, researchers, policy makers, and the public.

All of these are available on the IPinCH website:

Purpose & Goals

Project objectives were:   

  • to document the diversity of principles, interpretations, and actions arising in response to IP issues in cultural heritage worldwide;
  • to analyze the many implications of these situations;
  • to generate robust theoretical understandings and exemplars of good practice; and
  • to make these findings available to stakeholders—from Aboriginal communities to professional organizations and government agencies—assisting development and refinement of stakeholders’ theories, principles, policies, and/or practices.  

These objectives were pursued through four guiding questions that permeated most IPinCH initiatives, including the community initiatives it funded, as well as various research initiatives, public outreach and education, and student training:  

  1. What tools and practices will assist stakeholders to better understand and negotiate equitable and responsible approaches to IP issues in cultural heritage theory, policy, and practice?
  2. What forms of legal and/or customary protections apply to cultural knowledge and other cultural heritage?
  3. Is there common ground between Western and Indigenous or customary conceptions of IP, and, if so, how can we build policy and practice frameworks there on?
  4. What are the key elements of successful, equitable resolutions of IP issues?

Challenges & Future Plans

The IPinCH project was an unconventional academic research project that sought a more complete understanding of the complex IP issues that increasingly affect Indigenous knowledge systems and research relationships. The workshops, publications, and resources developed continue to provide assistance and resources to diverse stakeholders to better understand and address these concerns. The insights gained through collaborative projects developed with Indigenous partners help to catalyze new theoretical insights, policy development, and more accountable research relationships. These include better understanding of both the nature of Indigenous intellectual property and notions of heritage in which tangible/intangible “property” and nature/culture are indivisible. This research has also revealed substantial challenges in funding community-based studies through conventional academic channels, and so considerable time and effort were thus directed to implementing ethics reviews and grant transfers and to ensure partners retained ownership of research results.

Contact Information

George Nicholas 
Director of IPinCH 

Summary of Leading Practices for Respectful Use of Indigenous Knowledge

In 2012 the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training (“the Ministry”) launched the Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education and Training Policy Framework and Action Plan, which commits to improving outcomes for Indigenous learners.  A key objective of the Policy Framework is that public post-secondary institutions will implement policies, programs and services based on leading practices.

The Ministry has since developed materials on leading practices—including on  advisory councils, gathering places, Indigenous student housing, partnerships, transitions, mentoring,  Indigenous knowledge,  and assessment and benchmarking--that have been reviewed by the B.C. Aboriginal Post-Secondary Coordinators, Indigenous Leadership Roundtable, Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education and Training Partners, First Nations Education Steering Committee and Indigenous Adult and Higher Learning Association.

The following summary is intended to assist faculty, administrators and staff at post-secondary institutions to implement leading practices in the respectful use of Indigenous knowledge– whether that be making improvements to existing practices or establishing new ones. 

(A) Leading Practices in Building Awareness of Indigenous Knowledge

(B) Leading Practices in Research and Data Collection

  • Practice ethical Indigenous research methods and approaches. For example, Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research involving First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada (Chapter 9). Use culturally-appropriate, respectful methods that are specific to the project and community and that are led by collaborative practice and partnerships between communities and institutions.
  • Understand Indigenous data collection processes, including collaborative research design and the principles of ownership, control, access and protection and provide guidance to researchers to avoid the potential for unintentional cultural appropriation.
  • Ensure Indigenous community representation on Ethics Boards. Where possible, help communities to develop their own review practices. For example, to review institution practice and training opportunities.

(C) Leading Practices in Pedagogy, Curriculum and Teaching Resources

  • Ensure that appropriate permissions or recognition are in place in the development and use of education resources and that they are specific and co-developed with communities.
  • Ensure that Indigenous curriculum and resources are accessible to community members and local education programs. That the way in which they access them is co-developed and based on community needs.
  • Continue community and institution sharing beyond a single course. Collaborations are specific to the situation.