Trendy fast fashion chain Urban Outfitters is in hot water over their sale of “Navajo” branded items like the “Navajo hipster panty” and the “Navajo print fabric wrapped flask.” Apparently, slapping vaguely Native American looking patterns on items you made cheaply overseas and calling them “Navajo” is somewhat offensive to the actual Navajo Nation. Who knew?
In an angry but well-argued “open letter” published by Racialicious, Sasha Houston Brown laid out the various reasons why these items are offensive:
This past weekend, I had the unfortunate experience of visiting a local Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis. It appeared as though the recording “artist” Ke$ha had violently exploded in the store, leaving behind a cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive retail collection. Plastic dreamcatchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns.
In all seriousness, as a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as “fashion.”
All too often industries, sports teams and ignorant individuals legitimize racism under the guise of cultural “appreciation”. There is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures.
Furthermore, she pointed to an actual law(!) barring companies from making fake versions of Native American crafts:
“The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000”.
I guess when you get screwed out of your native land, you do get a few tiny protections in the new country you now must live in. According to Brown, the Navajo Nation has already sent a cease and desist letter regarding trademark infringement (yes, the Navajo Nation had to trademark its name to keep people from stealing it), which Urban Outfitters obviously ignored.
And if you’re waiting for Urban Outfitters’ inevitable “Sorry you got mad” non-apology, it may have already happened. Someone identifying himself as UO CEO Glen Senk has posted the following comment on the blog post:
I am deeply sorry this issue has triggered an offended reaction from you. It is not our intention to demean or offend any native people. I hope you will be willing to call our head office in Philadelphia to discuss this issue at 1- 215-454-5500
Is it the real Senk? Who knows? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it is, because this response is typical of companies that get caught doing something asinine. (See also: American Apparel.)
Pro tip for Senk: Next time, stick to appropriating the native handicrafts of Brooklyn scene kids. It seems to have worked well enough for you in the past. Better to be an uncreative rip-off artist than a colonizer of oppressed minority cultures, right? I know you want very badly to be both, but that’s pushing it.