Urban Outfitters is Obsessed with Navajos

by Guest Contributor Adrienne Keene, originally published at Native Appropriations

Navajo Nations Crew Pullover

Navajo Nations Crew Pullover

A search for “Cherokee” on the Urban Outfitters website reveals 1 result. A search for “Tribal”: 15. A search for “Native”: 10. “Indian”: 2. But Navajo? 24 products have Navajo in the name alone.

This post started as a massive Urban Outfitters take-down, I spent an hour or so last week scrolling through the pages of the website, and adding anything to my cart that was “Native inspired” or had a tribal name in the description. I got through JUST the women’s clothes and accessories (no mens or apartment), and had 58 items in my cart. So, then, like any good researcher, I began to code my cart for emergent themes, and the one that jumped out far above the rest? Urban Outfitters is obsessed with Navajos.

I want to show you some examples, and then talk a little about the issues with using tribal names in products that are decidedly not-. Finally, I want to share what the Navajo Nation in particular is doing about it, and the action they’ve taken is pretty cool.

Without further ado, some of the “Navajo” products to grace the pages of Urban.

From the basic:

Navajo Quilt Oversized Crop Tee

“Title Unknown Techno Navajo Quilt Oversized Crop Tee”

Truly Madly Deeply Navajo Print Tunic

Truly Madly Deeply Navajo Print Tunic

To the totally random:

Navajo Feather Earrings

Navajo Feather Earrings

The Navajo Sock

Navajo Sock

The Antiquated:

Leather Navaho Cuff Bracelet

Leather Navaho Cuff Bracelet

And, finally, the totally offensive:

Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask

Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask

Navajo Hipster Panty

Navajo Hipster Panty

Of course, there are many more if you head over to the site and search “Navajo”.

So what’s inherently wrong with using Navajo in product names? And what can tribal nations do about it?

First of all, these products represent a stereotype of “southwest” Native cultures. The designs are loosely based on Navajo rug designs (maybe?) or Pendleton designs, but aren’t representations that are chosen by the tribe or truly representative of Navajo culture. Associating a sovereign Nation of hundreds of thousands of people witl a flask or women’s underwear isn’t exactly honoring.

Additionally, it’s more than likely that Urban chose “Navajo” for the international recognition–to most of the world Navajo (and Cherokee)= American Indian (my Jamaican friend didn’t even know there were other tribes in the US until she met me). This conflation of Navajo with “generic Indian” contributes to the further erasure of the distinct tribes and cultures in the US and solidifies the idea that there is only one “Native” culture, represented by plains feathers and southwest designs.

Navajo has taken a bold step, and actually holds trademarks for 12 derivatives of “Navajo”, three of which I’m citing below:

2061748: NAVAJO Sportswear; namely, slacks, shorts, skirts and jeans.

2237848: NAVAJO Clothing; namely, tops, vests, shirts, sport shorts, polo shirts, golf shirts, * jackets, * T-shirts and sweat shirts.

3602907: NAVAJO Online retail store services; namely, on-line ordering services in the field of clothing—specifically, men’s and women’s sportswear, namely, jeans, tops, shirts, sport shorts, polo shirts, golf shirts, T-shirts and sweatshirts.
I’m no law expert, but it feels like the products above might be violating the trademarks?

A few months ago, they Navajo Nation Attorney General actually sent a cease and desist letter to Urban Outfitters, and there are some great quotes from the letter (I’ll try and post it in full in another post):

Your corporation’s use of Navajo will cause confusion in the market and society concerning the source or origin of your corporation’s products. Consumers will incorrectly believe that the Nation has licensed, approved, or authorized your corporation’s use of the Navajo name and trademarks for its products – when the Nation has not – or that your corporation’s use of Navajo is an extension of the Nation’s family of trademarks – which it is not. This is bound to cause confusion, mistake, or deception with respect to the source or origin of your goods. This undermines the character and uniqueness of the Nation’s long-standing distinctive Navajo name and trademarks, which—because of its false connection with the Nation—dilutes and tarnishes the name and trademarks. Accordingly, please immediately cease and desist using the Navajo name and trademark with your products.

As a Nation with a distinguished legacy and unmistakable contemporary presence, the Nation is committed to retaining this distinction and preventing inaccuracy and confusion in society and the market The Nation must maintain distinctiveness and clarity of valid association with its government, its institutions, its entities, its people, and their products in commerce.When an entity attempts to falsely associate its products with the Nation and its products, the Nation does not regard this as benign or trivial. TheNation remains firmly committed to the cancellation of all marks that attempt to falsely associate with the institution, its entities, its people or its products. Accordingly, immediately cease and desist using Navajo with your products.

I haven’t heard what the response was from Urban, if any, but I think it is a bold and positive choice for the tribe to take matters into their own hands and push back on instances of misrepresentation and cultural appropriation.

What do you think? Should tribes go the route of Navajo and trademark their tribal names? Do you think this will be an avenue for positive change or just mean tribal courts will be mired in lawsuits, taking away time from other important tribal business?

  • Pingback: SCARY INSENSITIVITY « Iconowatch

  • http://arathershortgirl.blogspot.com/ Shortgirl

    Dear cheap and tacky clothing retailers,

    Stop appropriating our cultures. And thanks for  creating a direct association between Natives and hipsters.

    Not pleased.

  • Anonymous

    And I hate the way that UO uses models of color and/or women and then cuts off their eye area like they aren’t people.  I know they do this with all their models and that they aren’t the only ones but it feels like a sick tradeoff is the only time they want to show people of color is when they have half their heads cut off.

  • Anonymous

     I just noticed something totally insidous here (other than the obvious) – how many of the models were black. As many of you may be aware, there are large numbers of black men and women in this country with some degree of indian heritage who are often excluded unfairly from tribal culture/events/etc. At best I would say that I have not found a welcoming or open attitude in many tribes toward welcoming our black members and/or citizens. This can be see in the recent almost wholesale expulsion of black citizens from the Cherokee Nation. And this urban outfitters trend, combining stolen native images with black models, seems like an attempt to exploit the psychological wound this has inflicted on many black indians in this country. its as if they are saying “hey, recently been thrown out of your tribe? well here – throw on this sweater – then you can feel indian again”. as if their disgusting tactics could ever be a substitute for the real thing.  I haven’t checked the website to see if the majority of models there are black too but it seems really blatant. And it is weird that there are no  “indian” (what, no fake Pocahontas?) models – but also reassuring. maybe we are getting better as saying no to letting our images been used for exploitation of our people and traditions and they just were refused by every native model they approached (assuming the models here are not native – and thats a big assumption on my part).

  • Pingback: Get Fierce With ‘Genocide Chic’ | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  • Anonymous

    The problem I have with these “ethnic’ and “tribal” fashions is that the most of the people who buy them don’t actually give a shit about the people and culture the items are derived from. It’s like dancing at the club to the latest Hip Hop music, but using the N word to describe black people in general.

  • Anonymous

    Damn. Cultural appropriation in it’s lowest form. Don’t white folks ever get tired of doing this shizz let alone explaining why they thought it was ok?

  • Angus

    Yoooo, Julia’s right though.  The font on this post is microscopic, in the comments, captions and part of the article.  It’s only this post, none of the other ones.

    I can read it when I copy/paste the text into MS Word though.

  • http://pickygirltriestoeat.wordpress.com/ mclicious

    First, this is awful, and most other “trendy” retailers do it, too. http://wtforever21.com/2011/10/forever-21-sells-faux-native-american-items-in-their-columbus-day-sale/

    Second, when, oh when will white corporations learn that a) “tribal” doesn’t mean anything, especially when the point of the word “tribe” is that it describes a specific group of people, not all groups of different tribes from different nations, traditions, continents, etc?

    Also, did you do a search for “ethnic?” That’s another favorite word in fashion, and I think it’s funny that not a single person in the fashion industry has taken a 101 college course and learned that “ethnicity” means “culture” and technically white people have it, too. So, like “tribal,” what the word actually means (various groups with distinct traditions/beliefs/etc) and how it’s being used (one kind of non-western style/tradition) are at odds with each other.

    In response to some of the comments, I agree that it’s sad that the Navajo Nation has to do this, but I think it’s necessary because it brings to light the fact that dominant cultures feel free to misappropriate all they wish.

    Finally, yuck. Just yuck. But thanks for another reason to despise this nasty store. Even when they’re not being offensive, their clothes are gross.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see how it could mean anything other than being mired in lawsuits. By trademarking the name it means that the various tribal nations will have a legal duty to vigorously defend their position with every single breach that occurs; there is a massive legal industry that has emerged around corporate copyright and this would be similar to that. Depending on how initial cases go I could just see companies going with a generic ‘tribal’ title to avoid future problems.

    Will it solve the issue of authenticity and misrepresentation that can occur as part of a larger consumist cultural trend? I don’t believe so as the original interest that creates and pushes specific, popular themes through society — the cultural zeitgesit, if you will — is rarely motivated by authenticity to the origins of an idea but to the interpretation of that idea itself (hence the misrepresentation. A good example of this is the early work of Osamu Tezuka and how that relates to western animation ideals at that time, and how his initial interpretation spread rapidly through the Japanese industry.) 

  • Harper

    I think it’s a little depressing that the Navajo Nation trademarks its own name as a commodity and plays these marketing games. That said, better them than Urban Outfitters.

    Also, sorry to inform but your code seems to be broken – all text after the hotpants photo is in tiny, tiny font that’s unreadable without awkward enlarging.

    • http://twitter.com/baitlins Caitlin Gephardt

      I think it’s even MORE depressing that the Navajo Nation HAS to do this.
      Would you prefer them to be totally passive and let white hipsters stereotype them into oblivion? It’s not a “game”, it’s an attempt to protect a culture.

      • Harper

        Not that what I prefer matters too hard, but no, absolutely not. The fact that white hipsters have the consumer spending power to change what ‘Navajo’ means is a gross systematic inequality, there’s no doubt about it.

        As it happens I don’t have a preference as to what the Nation should do, within this system of name commodification as it stands. It’s depressing that the Nation is absorbed so far into it, to defend and protect their own name as well as to sell it themselves.

        I don’t at all mean a “game” in the sense of lighthearted fun. I mean “play the game” in the sense of “play by the rules”, because no new player is a big enough force to change any rules as they stand.

      • Harper

        Not that what I prefer matters too hard, but no, absolutely not. The fact that white hipsters have the consumer spending power to change what ‘Navajo’ means is a gross systematic inequality, there’s no doubt about it.

        As it happens I don’t have a preference as to what the Nation should do, within this system of name commodification as it stands. It’s depressing that the Nation is absorbed so far into it, to defend and protect their own name as well as to sell it themselves.

        I don’t at all mean a “game” in the sense of lighthearted fun. I mean “play the game” in the sense of “play by the rules”, because no new player is a big enough force to change any rules as they stand.

      • Harper

        Not that what I prefer matters too hard, but no, absolutely not. The fact that white hipsters have the consumer spending power to change what ‘Navajo’ means is a gross systematic inequality, there’s no doubt about it.

        As it happens I don’t have a preference as to what the Nation should do, within this system of name commodification as it stands. It’s depressing that the Nation is absorbed so far into it, to defend and protect their own name as well as to sell it themselves.

        I don’t at all mean a “game” in the sense of lighthearted fun. I mean “play the game” in the sense of “play by the rules”, because no new player is a big enough force to change any rules as they stand.

  • Julia

    Something’s going on with the font above, beginning just below the photos. It’s teeny-tiny–impossible to read.

    • Anonymous

      Those are the photo captions.  I could take off the captions, if that is easier…

      • Harper

        Perhaps there’s an unclosed tag after the last photo – or tag closings that are out-of-order? These will manifest oddly in some browsers.

      • Harper

        Perhaps there’s an unclosed tag after the last photo – or tag closings that are out-of-order? These will manifest oddly in some browsers.

      • Harper

        Perhaps there’s an unclosed tag after the last photo – or tag closings that are out-of-order? These will manifest oddly in some browsers.

      • Harper

        Perhaps there’s an unclosed tag after the last photo – or tag closings that are out-of-order? These will manifest oddly in some browsers.