Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Future is Not a Tense

Helga Lomosits (Vienna)


Summary: There is an "inextricable" link binding linguistic, cultural, legal and biological diversity to traditional knowledge (Posey 1999). It is a remarkable paradox, according to which, by and large, intangible fluid heritage can only be protected by being made into what is is not: that is, tangible and fixed. This shift continues to have a profound impact on indigenous peoples in terms of its consequences on the nature of their cultural, social traditions and the integrity of their relationships with the land. The paper reports on Mi'kmaq, a polysynthetic language, the categorizations of which present holistic forms. This constitutive aspect requests to consider whether and how the concept of "right of integrity" might be extended to the Potlo'tek First Nation and their speakers as integrity of an indigenous people's heritage as a whole?


Extensive involvement in the cultural international arena such as UNESCO is part of current explorations in time and thought. Does this mean, that even though convivialty is a pre-condition of humanity only post-colonial humans have "culture"?

Indeed today, the relation between an anthropography and interactive modes of electronic mailing and networking provide a vast number of new scripts relatively autonomous from social mediation. Thus, semiotics considers a scriptoral vacuum as a field of geometry, by which the Mi'kmaw people of Eastern Canada are among those indigenous peoples who have had a unique history of symbolic writing. And this even though a new scriptoral and informational "digital" divide is currently explored in the international arena. Nevertheless, there is an "inextricable" link binding linguistic, cultural, legal, and biological diversity and traditional knowledge (cf. Posey 1999).

As the international discussions concerned with the protection of indigenous peoples' unfold, there is a risk that tangible expressions of reality will neglect constitutive aspects of cultures. It is said, by and large, that intangible, fluid heritage can only be protected by being made into what it is not: that is tangible and fixed.(1) Polysynthetic languages, which categorization presents as holistic forms, are a good example of this remarkable paradox. The concept of the "right of integrity" requests to refer to the Potlo'tek First Nation as the right of integrity of an indigenous people's heritage as a whole. Aboriginal peoples' emphasis on the development of a cultural policy and a distinct Canadian identity is generated from colonial ties, and it being located next to the culturally vital United States. Uniquely among First Nations, they do not have to demonstrate their aboriginal or treaty rights.

The conceptual unease arising from the notion to move from a pre-dominantly peripheral and historical approach to the issue of changing relationships between power, the nation and the production of personhood ranges in a variety of tensions between iconic and indexical status and stresses to undermine single-voiced authorities (cf. Pinney 1992: 74). Aboriginal jurisprudence contains many perspectives concerning Aboriginal knowledge. It is not one singular "vision" of good relationship or conviviality, but many. As such, when determining Aboriginal perspectives, a comparative analysis and a transnational, sui generis analysis are critical since judgement implies a coherent value-system.

To understand forms and their usage, it is necessary to consider the spiritual, practical, and public uses of pictographs, petroglyphs, notched sticks, and wampum in Algonkian and Mi'kmaw tradition and epistemology. Configuring wampum was accomplished by a method in which colored beads were woven into a desired pattern, and the process of stringing them together was called napawejik. Evidence found in wampum belts expresses shared conceptions of peace, friendship, war, death, and alliance, which are respectively exemplified by the symbols of a pipe, clapsed hands, a hatchet, purple beads around the emblem of a person, and a chain being held by two people.(2) The wampum is the most common Algonkian ideographic text.(3) In Mi'kmaq, the concept was known by three terms. The mainland people referred to is as wabe'k in the singular and wabe'gol in the plural, meaning "white seed". The Mi'kmaq of Unama'kik (Cape Breton Island) however referred to it as "stones of man" or elna'pskuk (cf. Speck 1917: 5). The word uktogooloowokuna is cited as a neckpiece that was worn by heroes as a medium of public record, maintained by the tribal historian (e.g. Rand 1898: 62; Clark 1902). In all the Wabanki tribes, wampum was figuratively called gelusewa'ngan, meaning "speech" (Speck 1915: 507).(4)

Furthermore it is important to consider, that the division of power does not include an express grant of power with respect to "culture"(5). However, the Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed that Aboriginal heritages, knowledges, and cultures underlie the constitutional framework and rights of Aboriginal peoples. The constitutional framework of s. 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, protects aboriginal societies and their cultures. Aboriginal heritage and knowledge of these societies and cultures establish the sui generis categories of Aboriginal jurisprudences of the First Nations.

Conviviality recognizes the collective performers (as well as owners) of their own cultural traditions in the anthropological sense of constant collective creation and recreation of culture through a people's daily activities and the interaction of community members with other people and with the environment. Youngblood Henderson reports that a dominant culture imposed on all aspects of identity, life and even reinforced mentalities of a Vanishing Race as a choice to the quest of civilization (Henderson et al. 2000b) First Nations do not have to surrender their sui generis rights, under the operational principle and the theory of majority rule or to the common or civil law regimes. Thus, it is questionable whether Aboriginal peoples, in their negotiations, can delegate heritage rights reserved for them to federal or provincial jurisdictions without a constitutional amendment (Henderson et al. 2000a).(6)

The cultural dimension of expression is, for some societies, not couched as an authority as it may shift from its living locus to an impersonal, exogenous locus in a book. However, it seems necessary to provide for the atypical case where the heritage of an indigenous people might not be held collectively. Although legal thoughts of heritage systems were not based on collective ownership, they recognize and apply the legal notion. The implications for language and heritage require a "collective, permanent and inalienable ownership", as prescribed by "the customs, rules and practices of each people" (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/26 para 5.), and therefore are mostly referred to as international standards in the Coolangatta and Kalinga statements (1999). Among others, the U.N. Draft Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of an Indigenous People is, next to the Convention on Biological Diversity (1993), an important source.

It is obvious, that there are signs that international organizations may be opening up to considering the prospect of (to a large extent) morally defined indigenous heritage rights, according to global ethics. Yet, unlike economic rights, moral rights can never be transferred, i.e. they are held by the author in perpetuity. Conviviality stresses the importance that ideas can only be protected if they are inventions, under patent law, which requires that the invention be demonstrably new and non-obvious, as well as industrially applicable, and the inventor be identified (cf. WIPO 1998). Lars-Anders Baer makes it clear:

While some of these issues are considered "secondary" rights for most sectors of civil society, for Indigenous Peoples and other traditional societies, the survival of their cultures, heritage, languages and environment determine the survival of their very existence and identity, and are as "primary" as the right to life (Baer 1998b: 12).

Finally, let us look at the fact that identity is by defintion plural as it determines orientation and describes profoundly processes of observation. Today English for Aboriginal peoples in North-America represents much more than just a stuctural power and material resources. Only three of the 70 Aboriginal languages in Canada are predicted to survive this century, along with the world's languages. The Mi'kmaw language is currently showing serious signs of language death. Mi'kmaq is of the Algonquian language family, once spoken extensively throughout eastern North America from Labrador to the southern United States, and from the Eastern seaboard to the Canadian Rockies, characterized by Central and Eastern Alquonquian groups. Of the eighteen Eastern languages Mi'kmaq is one of, all are now extinct except for a few hundred speakers of Maliseet, a few speakers of Passamaquoddy, five to ten Delaware speakers, and approximately two-thousand five-hundred to three-thousand speakers of Mi'kmaq. In 1970, the number of fluent speakers registered at 6000, but today there are most probably less than three-thousand (cf. Inglis 1998). If this language died, who would be a claimant for the recovery of material aspects of the culture when a people have disappeared?

Poly-synthetic languages have complex word systems or morphology with relatively simple syntax or sentence systems (cf. Inglis 1986). This means that one word may act as a sentence illustrated by: pemi-e'plewi-natawi-jajika'sit (translation: S/he, who knows how to do this well, is in the process of moving along very close to the edge (of shore); so close that s/he almost falls in, but because of her/his skills does not).(7)

The language also has relatively free word order in sentences and is still spoken with any degree of functional use, avoiding semantic categories of time or temporality. A variety of suffixes mark subject inaccessiblity. The verb system of Evidentiality and Absentativeness is explemary for the debate as the grammar of the language requires that the speaker indicates through the use of asentative suffixes, when the subject of the discourse is inaccessible. The underlying framework suggests that a Mi'kmaq speaker will not focus on how the event was positioned in time, or whether the event was completed or not. The Mi'kmaq Speech Act Participant positions are relative to how they came to "know of" or "experience" the event. Furthermore, the speakers distinguish between 1st-hand experience and 2nd-hand information requiring different endings on verbs beside the usage of evidentials. The second level of semantic processing is expressed when an actual event is spoken about in Mi'kmaq. This linguistic marking is done through the use of a set of verb and noun endings (cf. Inglis 2002).

The linguists Johnson and Inglis explain that evidence and references of experience seem to be a driving element, whereas the inaccessibility of a knowledge source is specifically marked with the use of asentative markers. Whereas the long past refers to ideographs - passed on by way of oral histories or community knowledge -, a differentiation refers to the fact that the speaker either experienced the event himself/herself (1st-hand evidence), or was told (2nd-hand evidence) (cf. Battiste 1984).

Furthermore, a transformative process provided by the semantic framework which determines, based on meaning, which plural ending a Mi'kmaw noun will take, shows not only elements of oral history, but more so, that the differentiations established between dependancy, functional use and the relation to state of being. The difference in semantic focus can be shown with the Mi'kmaw phrase and the observation/description of the "bigness of a house" (Inglis 2002).(8)

With respect to Aboriginal languages and the conviviality they represent, it is necessary to consider that, in many instances, intangible heritage that is not fixed in tangible form may not receive any protection at all, although one might expect that a compilation of intangible heritages would almost inevitably be something fixed in tangible form. But even here - and conviviality is the best example of it -, even though restrictions may not apply, only the form of expression, not the substance, of the heritage might be protected.

A constructive dialogue between indigenous peoples and other persons representing labor, trade, developmental, cultural and scientific interests of the international community intends to harmonize its activities with the protection of the heritage of indigenous people. Conviviality is also a consultative process, which can never be concluded, only recommended (cf. E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/26, para. 48) UNESCO's interest in the preservation of cultural diversity reflects the Convention on Biodiversity, and the attention for some mechanisms which already exist.

© Helga Lomosits (Vienna)


(1)  The term indigenous stands for diversity within a category, the latter arising as heritage. It is interesting to look for the first international organization to consider indigenous concerns. The ILO - International Labour Organization addressed factors of exploitation of indigenous labor force for colonial industries. As a result, underlying its convention No. 107 (1957), i.e. the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, considered the principles of integration and assimilation of indigenous peoples into the dominant culture. Subsequently the Convention No. 169 (1989) revised the policy of assimilation and opted for the preservation of indigenous cultural identity. The newer version of Convention No. 169, Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, outlines in concrete terms constitutive elements of an indigenous norm as it deals with all aspects and therefore can be found in what follows in anthropological and legal literature. Since 1982, activities of the UN Centre for Human Rights' Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP), culminated in the elaboration of the 1994 draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to the Permanent Forum, and via the process of implementation of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in particular its Articles 8j, 10c, 18.4., i.e. articles concerned with the respect, preservation and promotion of "knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity" (Art. 8j), as well as with the establishment of appropriate forms of cooperation for the development and utilization of such "knowledge, innovations and practices", and with equitable sharing of benefits deriving from this utilization are under debate. Activities concerning the rights of indigenous peoples were undertaken by WIPO around 1998. IPR, as well as IPR-related treaties, faced the terminology of Indigenous Knowledge and traditional knowledge to describe and provide the contents deriving from implicit social phases. Concepts such as "indigenous peoples' heritage rights" (Daes 1997), where "rights" and "resources" are understood as also involving "traditional obligations", are under consideration.

(2) Aboriginal literacy was largely symbolic and included e.g. the Algonkin Wlam Olum or Red Score (cf. Brinton 1884), the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine scrolls (cf. Tanner 1830) and the Mi'kmaw hieroglyphics, part of these mutually-intelligible ideological systems comprised a tribal encyclopedia capable of providing the history of early America (cf. Lévi-Strauss 1964: 71)

(3) The U.N. study reports on a photograph depicting a wampum in the Vatican (cf. Daes 1997).

(4) Two distinct periods of wampum use have been found amongst woodland tribes and their allies. In each period, a different type of wampum was used. The dividing line roughly coincided with the establishment of European-Tribal relations. During the first period, a "grave or discoidal" shaped wampum was used (cf. Snyderman 1954). Due to the shape and weight it was not displayed like the common belts of the second period. These strings and belts of tubular shells were periodically displayed at gatherings to recall past events and announce new ones. Furthermore treaties, tribal agreements, and boundaries could be represented in conventional symbols. At the same time, because of the utility and widespread value of the shells, wampum were also used as international, intertribal, and commercial currency. Colonial officials fixed exchange rates for wampum against sterling and later against the dollar (Battiste/Lomosits in press).

(5) In Canada First Nations refers to a category derived from Common Law, where Aboriginal peoples receive their position in the Constitution within Section 35(2): "In this Act, 'aboriginal peoples of Canada' includes the Indian, the Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada" (Constitution Act, 1982 being Schedule B to the Canada Act, 1982 (U.K.). 1982, c.11). The term Native American refers to the historical relationship of the United States of America and their indigenous populations and correponds to aspects of a sovereign status of reservations as nations (cf. Cohen 1982: 229-252).

(6) Metalaw is described in The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994

Pemi - in the process
 -e'plewi - over doing
 -natawi - ability
 -jajik - follow along the edge
 -a'si - reflexive
 -t - neut.
Meski'k. It is big. The phrase describes that the speaker is standing in front of a house and is looking at it now. Looking and living at or in the house are parallel processes.
 Meski'kek. It is big. The speaker expresses, that he/she saw the house yesterday. Seperate processes require an absentative marker.
 Meski'kip. It was/is big. A conversation about the house in which the speaker used to live and in which someone else now lives. This requires 1st-hand personal evidence.
 Meski'ks. It was/is big, so I am told. A conversation about a house, where someone has told the speaker that is it big. This requires 2nd-hand evidence.
 Meski'kipnek. It was big. The meaning refers to talking about a house, in which the speaker used to live, but which has been torn down. This requires 1st-hand evidence and an absentative marker. The item - the house - has been destroyed, no visual verification is possible.

(Selected Bibliography)

Baer, Lars-Anders (1998). Indigenous Peoples' Cultural Rights in the Context of the Stockholm Conference. Report on the UNESCO Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development. Stockholm. 30. March - 2. April 1998

Battiste, Marie (1984). An Historical Investigation of the Cultural and Cognitive Consequences of Micmac Literacy. Stanford: Stanford University, Ph.D.

- (1977). "Cultural transmission and survival in contemporary Mi'kmaq society". Indian Historian X(4): 2-13

- (1996). "Cultural restoration of oppressed Indigenous Peoples". In: International 1996 SSHRC Summer Institute. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 13-21

- 2000. Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press

- & James (Sa'ke'j) Youngblood Henderson (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge. Saskatoon: Purich Publishers

- & Helga Lomosits (in press). Alquonquian Symbolic Literacy. Paris: Gallimard

- & Siegfried Wiessner (2000). "The 2000 revision of the United Nations draft principles and guidelines on the protection of the heritage of Indigenous People". St. Thomas Law Review 13 (1): 383-390

Cohen, Felix S. ([1942]1982). Handbook of Federal Indian Law (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office 1942). Charlottesville: The Michie Company

Daes, Erica-Irene A. (1991). Working Paper on the Question of the Ownership and Control of the Cultural Property Indigenous Peoples. United Nations. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1991/34

- (1993). Study on the Protection of the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination of Minorites, Commission on Human Rights, UNESCO. E/CN.4/Sub. 21/1993/28

- (1995). Final Report of the Special Rapporteur: Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Commission on Human Rights, Unesco. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/26

- (1997a). Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People. United Nations: Study Series 10

- (1997b). Report of the Technical Meeting on the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People. Geneva, 6-7 March 1997 (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/15)

- (1998). "Opening address". Roundtable on Intellectual Property and Indigenous Peoples. WIPO. Genf. 23-24 July 1998

- (2000). "Report of the seminar on the draft Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples". Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Fifty-second session, Item 7 of the provisional agenda, E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/26, Geneva, 28 February - 1 March 2000

Henderson, James (Sa'ke'j) Youngblood et al. (2000a). Aborginal Tenure in the Constitution of Canada. Toronto: Carswell

- (2000b). Declaration of Indigenous Teachings for Twenty-First Century Civilization. Ottawa: Canadian Commission for UNESCO

Inglis, Stephanie H. (2002). Speakers Experience: A Study of Mí'kmaq Modality. St. John Memorial University of Newfoundland: unpublished thesis

International Labour Organization ILO (1967). Convention Concerning the Protection and Integration of Indigenous and Other Tribal and Semi-Tribal Populations in Independent Countries of 26 June 1957, reprinted in 328 U.N.T.S. 247. Adopted by the General Conference of the International Labour Organization, Geneva, 27 June 1989, and entered into force 5 Sept. 1991, reprinted in 28 I.L.M. 1382 (1989), (1990) 15 Okla. City U.L. Rev. 127-53

Little Bear, Leroy (1995). In a Nutshell: The Relationship of Aboriginal People to the Land and the Aboriginal Perspective on Aboriginal Title. Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: ms.

- (1996). "Relationship of Aboriginal People to the Land and the Aboriginal Perspective on Aboriginal Title". In: (cd-rom) For Seven Generations: An Information Legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa: Minister of Supply & Services

Pinney, Christopher (1992). "The Parallel Histories of Anthropology and Photography". In: Edwards, E. (ed.). Anthropology & Photography 1860-1920. New Haven: Yale University Press, 74-95

Posey, Darrell A. (1999). "Culture and nature: the inextricable link" In: idem (ed.). Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. UNEP. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

UNESCO (1998). World Culture Report: Culture, Creativity and Markets. Paris: UNESCO Publishing

WCCD (1998[1995]}. Our Creative Diversity. Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development. Paperback Edition. UNESCO Publishing/Oxford & IBH Publishing

WIPO (1998). Main Aspects of Industrial Property. Document prepared for the Roundtable on Intellectual Property and Indigenous Peoples. World Intellectual Property Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 23-24. July, 1998

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Helga Lomosits (Vienna): Future is Not a Tense. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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