Troubling Colonial Notions of Ownership of Indigenous Sound Recordings

By Rachel Pickard

Rachel Pickard is a settler student living on the unceded territories of the Syilx/Okanagan Peoples and a SpokenWeb Research Assistant. Below are her thoughts and considerations after attending the Equity for Indigenous Research and Innovation Coordinating Hub’s webinar titled “Copyright and Ownership of Indigenous Sound Recordings”. Thanks to Rachel for sharing her reflections on the experience.

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the Equity for Indigenous Research and Innovation Coordinating Hub’s (ENRICH) “Copyright and Ownership of Indigenous Sound Recordings” webinar. Speaking at the event was Dwayne Tomah, a Language Keeper from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Dr. Trevor Reed, an Associate Professor in Law at Arizona State University from the Hopi Tribe. Together, Tomah and Reed demonstrated the significance of sound and sound recordings within many Indigenous communities on Turtle Island and beyond while stressing the necessity of ongoing consent, respect, and consideration when engaging with Indigenous sound recordings.

As a settler situated on the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and student researching the significance of oral histories and storytelling practices in relation to ongoing colonial legacies, this webinar drew my attention to several key issues and ideas that I will attempt to articulate in these three points:

1) Indigenous Peoples continue to play a crucial role in sound recording history and practices, yet hardly get any credit and face significant obstacles with colonial notions of ownership.

2) Settlers continue to exploit, misuse, appropriate, and steal Indigenous sound and sound recordings for their own benefit, often displacing the sound further from its original context.

3) Indigenous communities continue to assert their rights and ownership of their Traditional Knowledge and sound recordings. In many cases, this means Indigenous communities have created and are upholding their own protocols for engagement with their sound recordings.

While my unfamiliarity with copyright laws and legal terms revealed a gap in my understanding I am now seeking to fill, I think it also highlighted the complexities and colonial gatekeeping involved in defining ownership. Reed’s case study of a white woman named Laura Boulton, helped prompt many questions. Boutlon, who visited many countries in Africa and Turtle Island “hunting” Indigenous songs, was able to sign deals to record Indigenous songs and release them for her own profit. Who gets to define ownership? Who were copyright and ownership laws really made to protect? How do colonial notions of ownership contradict ideas of ownership within different Indigenous communities?

According to Reed, one of Boulton’s recordings contains a Hopi ceremony song that would not have been sung publicly. How does stealing “ownership” of sound recordings further displace them from their context? Can Indigenous protocols be reconciled with copyright and ownership laws? How are copyright laws and colonial ideas of ownership upholding and participating in colonialism?

Having only recently gained some experience working with archives, I have come to appreciate and understand how copyright protects people from having their belongings and works stolen, misconstrued, or made public without their consent. At the same time, this webinar helped unpack the ways in which ideas of ownership and copyright laws–like all things under colonial institutions–protect some more than others and need to be held accountable to Indigenous protocols and ways of knowing.


Reed, Trevor and Dwayne Tomah. “Copyright and Ownership of Indigenous Sound Recordings”. ENRICH Webinar Series, 28 Feb. 2023, online.