What’s Next for the Urban Outfitters Navajo Case?

Susan Scafidi in Indian Country Today Media Network.com, October 14, 2011

Media Source

By now, the news of the Navajo product controversy at Urban Outfitters has spread far and wide, from blogs to mainstream news outlets, and at times in the last few days it has seemed like the entire internet was abuzz with discussions of tribal trademarks and Navajo hipster panties. Santee Sioux tribal member Sasha Brown’s poignant and strongly worded Open Letter to Urban Outfitters has gone viral, bringing issues of representation and cultural appropriation to an audience who may have never before encountered these ideas in their lives.

The Navajo issue started for me at the end of September, when I spent time perusing the Urban Outfitters website looking for “Native” or “Tribal” themed products. One wordy post and quoting of a Navajo Nation cease-and-desist letter later, a controversy was born. What it boils down to is this: Urban Outfitters has over 20 products named “Navajo,” and that’s not cool—especially when the Navajo Nation owns 12 trademarks for various derivatives of “Navajo.”

And the problem is definitely not limited to Urban Outfitters; see Jezebel’s post “The Most WTF Navajo-Inspired Clothing And Accessories”, Rachel Kane’s takedown of Forever 21’s Native-Inspired sale items, or Beyond Buckskin’s discussion of Proenza Schouler’s creepy video for their new line for other recent examples of the tribal trend in action.

Most of the media outlets covering the back-and-forth between the Navajo Nation and Urban Outfitters wonder if Navajo even has a case, and plenty of commenters dismiss the tribe and the concerns completely:

saeda: “I don’t think anyone assumes real natives made those panties.” (source here)

night crone: “Don’t you think bringing all the media attention to this, will only draw more people to Urban and sell more? Urban doesn’t care if anyone is offended, they just want to make money, and you’ve given them lots of free advertising.” (source here)

Merthyr Bong: “As a person of Scots ancestry I am offended by Scotch tape! How dare they! Using plaid even! Where can I get my money and 15 minutes of fame for being offended?” (source here)

Lynnie123: “What — no one else in the world could come up with those patterns? They’re probably angry because the Native Americans aren’t making money on the deal” (source here)

Jezebel posted a fabulous piece yesterday detailing the ins and outs of intellectual property law and fashion, tying in the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and other measures in place to protect Native artisans. They quote Susan Scadafi, a professor at Fordham Law, who says, of tribal trademark cases:

“It’s an issue when you have indigenous peoples…who have been subject to actual genocide, and then you come back around with what some people characterize as cultural genocide. The pillaging of land, the pillaging of personal property, followed by the pillaging of what could be considered intellectual property. It’s something that occurs against a background of a lot of other offensive actions.”

That, to me, is the root of it all. This goes far beyond an issue of trademarks or truth in advertising. This is also an issue of representation, and an issue of power. I, personally, don’t care about a pair of socks called “Navajo,” but I do care about what they represent. They represent the appropriation of Native American cultures and lifeways, and the continued stereotyping of Indigenous Peoples. Most consumers look at that sock and can’t imagine that it holds any meaning beyond its $4.99 price tag. But I, and other Native people, look at that sock and see that the painful history that has allowed the vast majority of Americans to ignore our continued existence.

These “Navajo” products, and the thousands like them found at shops all over the world, relegate Native peoples to a stereotype. We are nothing more than a one-dimensional fictitious “Native American culture” represented by southwestern designs, fringe, feathers, and buckskin; when in reality we are a diverse, vibrant population of over 565 tribes and communities, each with our own traditions, languages and cultures.

We care about our culture, and it’s important to us to get it right – the same can’t be said of designers and the fashion media. A prescient Arizona Central article (“Neo-Navajo style: Trend or tradition?”) raised a red flag a few weeks ago:

“We wonder what the people who write product descriptions for Intermix were thinking when they penned ‘The new Navajo: ethnic Aztec inspiration’ (different country, different tribe). … And we are dying to hear from the Navajo people themselves—who would be well within their rights to have their Navajo hipster panties in a twist, considering the Telegraph newspaper in London told its readers to ‘channel your inner Pocahontas.’ Pocahontas wasn’t Navajo. She was from Virginia.”

We deserve the right to represent our own communities. The problem is, Urban Outfitters, in their position of power and privilege, has the ability to represent Native peoples however they choose, and Native peoples up until now have had no power to stop them.

The Navajo Nation has taken a bold step and utilized the legal system in an attempt to beat Urban Outfitters on their own terms. But is it practical for the Navajo Nation, or any tribe for that matter, to be constantly embroiled in long drawn-out trademark lawsuits that may or may not rule in the tribes’ favor? Maybe not, especially when they have the whole responsibility of, you know, running a sovereign nation.

But I hope you can see, we aren’t left with much of a choice. How else are tribes supposed to fight back against the misrepresentations that contribute to the continued stereotyping and invisibility of our peoples? I think if all the publicity around this issue shows anything, it shows that the stage might be set to take a stand against these widespread and egregious instances of misrepresentation, and fight back through whatever means necessary, whether it’s through slapping a lawsuit on every Navajo panty, or writing angry open letters to company CEO’s. I’d say it’s definitely about time.