Friday, May 18, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Can You Own A Culture?

Anthropologist Mary McCutcheon received her doctorate from the University of Arizona, where she researched the land and marine resource tenure of the Pacific island of Palau. After a fruitful career at the Smithsonian and George Mason University, Dr. McCutcheon now spends her time as a docent at, appropriately enough, the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Originsa place where she just might find the answers to some of society’s most perplexing questions. 

I certainly didn’t expect to upset my friend Demei when I told him what I had done. It was 1991, and Demei was the biologist working for the government of the Republic of Palau, an island group in the Western Pacific. I was an anthropologist who thought I was an expert on ownership of property, such as land, agricultural products, and marine resources. I clearly didn't know everything on this subject.

Palau on the globe
When I first arrived in Palau back in 1977, I lived with one of the paramount chiefs in a village called Melekeok. Because I was walking all over the island looking at farms and plots of land, I also collected plants and pressed and dried them in my homemade kerosene-fueled plant drier. I would always ask Dirruleong Kebang, the paramount chief's wife, what these plants could be used for. One day, I'd collected a sprig of something that made her eyes brighten. This, she declared, was ukelel a chedib, an herb that cured stomach ailments. She described how to brew it into a tea and all about its remarkable curative properties. I jotted all this down in my notes as I pressed the sample between pages of the Pacific Daily News.

Dirruleong Kebang with her husband,
Secharuleong Kitalong
Some weeks later, Kebang looked sick. I asked what was wrong, and she replied that she had a terrible stomachache. She then asked if I had any medicine for this (hoping I'd come up with a bottle of the universally respected Pepto Bismol). I smiled and hastened off to the spot where I knew the ukelel a chedib grew. I gathered a fistful and brewed a strong tea. When I presented it to Kebang, she laughed and happily drank it. She declared that she felt much better, but I suspect it was the delight and laughter that cured her more than the potion I had concocted.  

Melekeok as seen from the sea
A decade passed. My plant collections and field notes found eternal homes in the herbarium at the Smithsonian, where I also found a dull job as a bureaucrat. One day in March 1988, I was asked to host a day at the Smithsonian for a group of Micronesian historic preservation officers. The person from Palau was my old friend, Moses Sam, so I invited him to stay at my house during his time in town.  

I prepared a talk on the importance of stretching the job of historic preservation to things other than buildings and historic sites. I stressed the significance of plants, crafts, folklore, songs, and other kinds of traditional knowledge. As an example, I told the story of Kebang and the ukelel a chedib tea. That night, Moses came home for dinner and told me how especially meaningful my anecdote had been to him. He had had a bad case of Hepatitis B and thought he was close to death. His liver had been failing, and he’d had no appetite or any energy at all. His grandmother suggested that he drink a strong cup of ukelel a chedib every day. He took her advice, got well, and went back to playing softball. He’d gained weight and felt terrific. The credit went to his wise grandmother and her ancient herbal cures. When Moses told me his story, I just laughed and would have completely forgotten it, had it not been for a tiny story in the Washington Post the following week. 
Click article once to enlarge.
I was reading this article, absent-mindedly, while having my English muffin and a cup of coffee when suddenly I realized, "Damn! That Phyllanthus is the same genus as ukelel a chedib.”

That day, I tracked down Baruch Blumberg, the American physician mentioned in the article. He'd discovered Hepatitis B and, as a Nobel laureate, he was not hard to find. Our correspondence eventually included his assistant, Dr. David Unander. A couple weeks later, Unander came to visit the Smithsonian herbarium that housed my samples of Phyllanthus palauensis. He also had a chance to meet the foremost expert on the genus, Dr. Grady Webster, who had also spent a lot of time at the herbarium. Unander thought it was possible that the Palauan species had even more powerful properties than the South Asian variety he had been studying. I couldn't help feeling proud of myself.

Phyllanthus marianensis, a close relative of Phyllanthus palauensis
(known in Palau as ukelel a chedib)
It was during my next visit to Palau in 1991 that I went to visit Demei and told him my ukelel a chedib story, expecting that he would appreciate the contribution that a Palauan tradition might have in the world of medicine. But instead, his eyes squinted a bit, and he glared at me with disgust. Who did I think I was taking his culture’s traditional knowledge and spreading it around all over the place? I stammered an apology as my face burned with a blend of anger and shame.

In fact, I doubt that my information ever made any difference in this research. A quick look on the Internet shows that research on potential cures for the virus continues and show promise, but there is no mention of the Palauan species. I don’t think anyone is making buckets of money from the active ingredient of Phyllanthus yet, but still, this episode marked the beginning of my sensitivity to what could be called “cultural intellectual property.” Individual or corporate intellectual property is what we protect with copyrights and patents. But what is a CULTURE? It’s not exactly a group of people, but rather the values and social rules that bind a group of individuals together. How can a thing such as culture have rights?

The author with JohnWayne Kentaro,
Kebang's great grandson, in Palau 30 years ago
There are lots of other areas where cultural intellectual property is treated as a public good. Consider folk music, traditional dance, legends,
curing rituals, motifs in art, needlework, jewelry design,
and costume. More and more, these kinds of “plagiarisms” are
making their way into courts where finding justice is not easy.

The problem of using knowledge from medicinal plants is more nuanced because of the
potential life-saving power of this knowledge. We'd like to think that all people would generously part with secrets and folk knowledge if it could save lives, but the truth is pharmaceutical companies are seeking profits and exclusive patent rights. Their shareholders might be oblivious of the real “research and development” that goes into a product as they cash their dividend checks.

Moses Sam
In this day of world migration and intermarriage, the boundaries around any cultural group are blurred. The best way to handle such challenges is to make sure that large percentages of profits go towards something that benefits the place and whoever might live there. But even deciding how these proceeds should be spent becomes problematic when different individuals claiming to have authority over cultural knowledge disagree.

When Kebang died 12 years ago at the age of about 106, she was the oldest person in Palau. Moses Sam died in 2009. I heard he had died of liver cancer—a consequence of hepatitis B.


  1. A highly thought-provoking piece. Thanks for sharing your insights. My father knew a great deal about wild plants and prepared folk remedies for various things. One of his favorite plants was mullein, which he used for skin inflammation, and willow bark, for similar complaints.

  2. What a great story! I've always been fascinated by Palau, and by herbal/traditional medicine. And it's a very interesting question--how can we protect cultural intellectual property?

  3. I can't stop thinking about this post, Mary. You opened my eyes to a subject I've thought about only at the periphery, though cultural intellectual property is becoming a hot issue these days.

    You reminded me about a famous lawsuit from about a decade ago as well. The flowers, seeds, leaves, even the bark of the neem tree from South Asia provides all kinds of medicinal properties and is often used in ayurvedic and home remedies. It's been a while now, but the Indian government successfully sued the European Patent Office after it granted a patent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and W.R. Grace and Co. on a neem product. W.R. Grace challenged the ruling, saying the neem's properties had never been published in a medical journal, but the Indian government said so what, India had been using it as a medicine for more than 2,000 years---that latter argument won the case and the EPO revoked the patent. I suppose we'll hear more such lawsuits in our generation, especially when it comes to the latest new pharmaceuticals.