So Your Navajo Sweater Might Be Illegal (And It’s Definitely Culturally Insensitive)

Walk into any Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie and you’re bound see racks and racks of clothes referencing Navajo patterns and designs. A quick perusal of Urban’s website finds that there are almost two dozen products referencing the Native American tribe, by name at least, in its product descriptions. These days the all-encompassing term to describe Native American-inflected design is everywhere. And it might just be illegal.

It turns out that all the egregious use of Navajo to describe every Native American-themed skirt, shirt and bag out there may be in violation of the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990 and the Federal Trade Commission Act. You see, the Navajo tribe owns 12 specific trademarks on the use of the term Navajo to describe goods. And earlier this year the Navajo Nation’s Attorney General actually sent a cease and desist letter to Urban Outfitters, requesting that they take the term out of the names and descriptions of the multitudes of products that refer to the tribe. As the letter explains,

“Your corporation’s use of Navajo will cause confusion in the market and society concerning the source or origin of your corporation’s products … 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.”

The letter continues:

“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.  The Nation remains firmly committed to the cancellation of all marks that attempt to falsely associate with the institution, its entities, its people or its products.”

Which in essence says, “If anybody’s gonna capitalize off of the Navajo people, you better believe it’s gonna be the Navajo people, mmkay?”

But hey, that’s not all. Let’s talk about what else is wrong with the whole Navajo phenomenon.

As some Native American critics have pointed out, all this hipsterization of these patterns reduces the Navajo from an ethnic and cultural group to nothing more than a darling aesthetic statement. Oh? You’re going to Coachella? Why not don a Native American headdress to signify how “one with the wild spirit” you are? You can buy one at the costume store, because in American culture, we’ve in large part reduced Native Americans to nothing more than costume–removed from the idea that there are a multitude of Native American tribes with different traditions and histories and peoples. The act of wearing a Native American headdress is effectively a cultural minstrel show.

Let’s put it another way: Imagine if a corporation similarly began referring to a Jewish look or an African look (oh wait, they already do). Or, let’s examine some other bizarro cultural appropriations that have recently occurred. Like remember when everyone was wearing bindis as fashion statements? Or how about the proliferation of keffiyehs as hipster scarves? Both items have their roots in longstanding cultural traditions — the bindi is a Southeast Asian adornment traditional in Hindu culture, and the keffiyeh is a traditional Arab headwrapping (the different colors and checks symbolize different heritages). But you’d never know it based on the numbers of plain old white folks walking around with these items on.

And sure, you can believe you’re wearing these things in appreciation of these cultures, no doubt. But it’s a whole other thing when a corporation like Urban, or any other, takes something traditional and puts a mass spin on it. Doing so effectually whitewashes and homogenizes a culture that’s much more diverse, and historically complex, than any “Navajo print” T-shirt or, Christ, hipster panty, can express.  As blogger Sasha Houston Brown writes in an open letter to Urban:

“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.”

So while you it’s unlikely that you’ll personally be handcuffed and carted off for wearing a Native American headdress at the next outdoor music festival, you may want to reconsider whether it’s truly in good cultural politics — or in general good taste — to do so.