Indigenous claims about “culture loss” pose a problem for contemporary definitions of culture as a process that continually undergoes change rather than something which can be damaged or lost. This issue is examined in the context of hearings at the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands, which was established to adjudicate claims regarding damage and loss to persons and property resulting from United States nuclear weapons testing during the 1940s and ’50s. The concept of cultural property rights is used to identify the referents of discourse about culture loss, including local knowledge, subsistence production, and connections to place. The problems caused by the taking of inalienable possessions are also considered. At issue is whether indigenous relationships to land are of ownership, belonging, or both. The definition and significance of culture and loss are increasingly debated in legal contexts ranging from tribunals and truth commissions to land rights hearings and heritage legislation around the world.
This paper compares social networks mobilised through claims of ownership in Euro-American and Melanesian contexts. It addresses the debate between Strathern (1996) and Latour (1993) regarding the length of networks formed in these societies. Examples are drawn from compensation claims against the Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea. The paper also considers Pietz (1997) discussion of nineteenth-century British laws relating to compensation. The aim of the paper is to examine the effects of ownership strategies on other social categories and practices, including competing assessments of the environmental impacts of mining and the value of human life.