Saami accuse a Danish jeweler of 'stealing' traditional designs

Since 2005, Steen Björvig's firm has produced a line of bracelets fashioned of silvered tin wire and leather, and decorated with such items as gold and silver beads and reindeer bone. The inspiration, he readily admits, comes from the Saami.

"Our bracelets tell their story," he says. "It's a good story that people want to attach to the products we produce."

For the past decade or so, that story has been a good one for BeChristensen, the Danish firm Mr Björvig owns. Last week, however, it took, in his words, an "unpleasant turn" when his company's social-media pages were inundated with comments accusing him of profiting on a design that is not his own.

Most of the messages, he says, tell him to "stop stealing our name and our identity," a reference, in part, to BeChristsensen's Danish copyright protection for the product name 'Samer,' which is the term for the Saami in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.

The sudden criticism came as a surprise to Björvig, who says he has had no complaints about his designs before. And while he regrets any unintentional slight, he defends both the product and the choice of the name.

"You can't claim the right to a design that has existed for generations," he says. "Besides, it has spread knowledge of the group and its culture. All of a sudden, people as far away as Australia know who the Saami are."

Mr Björvig now hopes to meet with Saami representatives to discuss the matter. Áile Jávo, the president of Sámeráđđi, an organisation working with Saami issues, welcomes the apology, and says she would attend a meeting, but she also underscores that the Saami position is clear.


"We neither need nor want him to promote our culture, and certainly not if he's the one that benefits from it."

Björvig can rest easy on one point: The Saami are not looking to prevent BeChristensen from producing its bracelets. What they do want, Jávo says, is him to give up his copyright on the word 'Samer,' and make it clear to customers that the bracelets were not produced by the Saami.

"He gives the impression that his bracelets are made by the Saami, when they really have nothing to do with us. Claiming they do amounts to false advertising and stealing, and he upsets a lot of people when he does," she says.

BeChristensen is not the first firm to anger indigenous groups by using cultural symbols. Most recently Ungava, a Québec-produced gin, fell afoul of Inuit groups by incorporating Inuit cultural references in its packaging and marketing.

In another recent incident, in 2015, KTZ, a London clothing firm that makes wide use of ethnic symbols, chose to take a parka out of its collection after the descendants of a Nunavut shaman complained it had copied his design.

On its website, KTZ describes itself as a firm that "embraces ethnographic references." Company representatives did not reply to a request to explain which considerations it made when deciding to incorporate ethnic elements. However, in 2015, in connection with a different complaint about its designs, the company suggested that it felt they were public domain.

"Even if there is a similarity, these images have existed for hundreds of years," Kelly Cutruone, a company spokesperson, told the BBC about the complaint, lodged by Bethany Yellowtail, a Native American designer. "I understand if she said that it is her design and she has worn it, but so did thousands of people for thousands of years."

Cirkeline Buron, a director with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a communications agency, explains that as long as firms are not making a false claim about who they are or who is making their products, customers are unlikely to take much note.

"In today's society, we copy each other as never before," she says. "People want to buy something that is unique in some way, and you can't control where people get their inspiration from."

This could be especially difficult for small groups that lack the resources to go after firms they feel are misappropriating their culture. In some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, there are some legal protections preventing the commercial use of indigenous symbols, but stopping all knock-offs in every country is unrealistic.

Instead of putting their energy into preventing others from copying their ideas, Buron argues, ethnic and indigenous groups would be better served by being proactive about capitalizing on them.

"Good stories drive sales. If they don't tell their story, someone else is going to do it."

Most likely, it would not be for them.

This story was first published by The Arctic Journal and is republished here by permission.