Urban Outfitters Wins In Court Against Navajo Nation After 4-Year Copyright Battle

In the battle of good versus Urban Outfitters, Urban Outfitters has won. Sort of. After a four-year battle, the Navajo Nation lost two of its six lawsuits against Urban Outfitters.

For years, Urban Outfitters has been marketing “Navajo” clothes, jewelry, and accessories without approval from or any involvement of the Navajo Nation, including a “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask” — especially insensitive in light of the inaccurate stereotype about Native Americans and alcoholism. Urban Outfitters has now taken down the fake “Navajo” products from its online store, but the damage is already done.

Hence the lawsuits.

The two that the Navajo Nation lost were for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 and for trademark infringement. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act prevents the sale of any art products if their description falsely suggests that they’re Native-made. Selling an entire fashion line under the term “Navajo” that isn’t made by any Navajo people falls into that category, right? You would think, but apparently not.

For the second lawsuit, the Navajo Nation argued that the term “Navajo” is a “famous and recognizable” name and is therefore a trademark, because it’s too much to ask companies to respect Native people otherwise. The judge in the case ruled that “Navajo” is more of a “niche” name than a trademark, despite the Navajo Nation being the second largest Native American tribe in the country. Plus, this case was tried in New Mexico, which has the second largest Navajo population in the U.S. It’s hard to see any reasoning behind this judgment other than our great tradition of using the government to screw over Native Americans.

Long Walk of the Navajo
CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

That’s a photo from the Long Walk of the Navajo in the 1800s, when the Navajo were forced to walk over 300 miles to new settlements without adequate food or water. The Navajo population went down by about 92% as a result.

An Urban Outfitters model, enjoying the sun.

This “Navajo” clusterfuck isn’t Urban Outfitters’ only sensitivity fail. Remember their vintage-style Kent State sweatshirt that looked like it was spattered with blood, a clear reference to that time when the National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State University during an antiwar protest? Or how about the tapestry with a print similar to the uniforms gay prisoners wore in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust? Or the T-shirt that the Anti-Defamation League described as a color-switched version of the Star of David shirts Jewish people were forced to wear under Nazi occupation? (Urban Outfitters claims that these last two were accidents. Maybe they were. So if they’re reading, I want to tell them about this super-specialized fashion design research tool. It’s called Google Images.) Or the women’s tee with this simple disempowering message: “EAT LESS“? I could, sadly, go on.

The verdicts on the Navajo Nation’s lost lawsuits suggest that the courts have either ignored Urban Outfitters’ record of profiting from the pain of others or gone over it and decided it’s fine. If the Navajo Nation loses its other four lawsuits against these professional insensitivity merchants, we’ll know where the government’s priorities really lie.