Urban Outfitters is Obsessed with Navajos

September 23, 2011 — 22 Comments

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:

To the totally random:
The Antiquated:
And, finally, the totally offensive:
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 withyour 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?

(Thanks Marj, Brian, and Aza!)

Adrienne K.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01935187189766583381 Geraly

    this post just reminded me of a new bike , the navajo, from my favorite (questionable now) bike company, electra… i’m not sure when the bike is going to be made available to the public. here’s a pic:

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150269558076787.326197.41291981786&type=1

    here in chicago, the tribal trend/fail is alive and well… sadly, feathered items are everywhere…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08899058746625605290 suz

    So glad someone is writing about this. It seems UO could make anything sexy & tempting, even appropriation. Nice to read some level-headed thoughts and the latest on what’s going on. Thanks!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09270778710562206984 Introduction to American Studies

    I was on the bloomindales website the other day and noticed a similar trend. Go to their website and type in “Navajo” in the search box. They have a “Navajo Cheyenne Tote” and a “Navajo Dakota Convertible Clutch” among others.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11391821692246018955 Mallory Whiteduck

    I think the route taken by the Navajo nation is a great start – for nations as large and “well-known” as the Navajo to nations called invisible, like mine, the Algonquin. With only 10 federally recognized First Nations in Canada, many people don’t know the Algonquin nation exists. They confuse us with the anthropological group of “Algonquians” and our erasure is compounded by the use of the name Algonquin, which is strewn across Canada’s capital city–a travel agency, provincial park, non-tribal college, etc. I believe in using the master’s tools to dismantle his house, and I think trademarking our names (as consumerist as the process might be) could be a viable option for some.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03246750969896204121 Lindsay

    I just looked at the Navajo Cheyenne tote and I had to laugh. What, did they just throw some tribal names into a hat or something? There is no reference to Cheyenne in the description, is it just like two Native names make it twice as exciting appealing to appropriators? I noticed it’s designed by Gwen Stefani, who has a long history of appropriation. Harjuko Lovers anyone?
    I am really glad the Navajo took this step. I know it may not make sense for all tribes but it sets an important precedent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05741574669158399957 rcl

    Adrienne, I’ve got to thank you for continuing to explore this subject.

    This weekend, I went to Ikea and was looking at the kids toys and saw that they were selling a cloth feathered headband (i.e. the feathers were sewn and filled with polyester crap to make them stand up from the band part) obviously made to look generically Native. The incident was kind of surreal for me, as I was with my partner (who is Saulteaux) at the time. How can we buy “make believe” dress up clothes for our kids or sell them in our stores while the “make believe” people who still wear forms of regalia in seriousness exist, and patronize those shops? I don’t know what the fuck I would do if I walked into a store and they said they were selling “Icelandic sweaters” with some shitty Nordic pattern printed onto a bastardized hoodie. Probably become a lecturing idiot and find the manager and say “Um, excuse me, to be an Icelandic sweater, this needs to be made of honest to God 100% itchy, uncomfortable Icelandic sheep’s wool. And it needs to be made in Iceland. And it needs honest to God silver buttons with intricate filigree if it has buttons at all. Sorry, but no!” I would feel like my long-amma’s old old handmade wool carders were a joke. I would feel like my mom telling me stories about relatives making yards and yards of yarn were “myths” instead of history. I would feel lost between a fairy tale past and a consumer-based future.

    I think if people like you didn’t keep pushing this subject of cultural appropriation, people (even people like me who are “educated” and “aware” and know that it is “bad” or “wrong” or “patronizing”) wouldn’t really get it, in the sense that we can know it’s bad, but we can’t empathize because we’ve never had our histories taken away and turned into lore and we haven’t had our national dress taken away and turned into costume. So thank you for that.

  • http://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/ thevintagetraveler

    This is not the first time the Navajo have taken legal action against makers of “Indian” goods. In 1930 they filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying that Beacon Blankets were using the term “Indian blankets” and they were using advertising portraying blankets being woven by Native people. In 1932 the FTC ruled in the Navajos’ favor, and ordered Beacon to stop using images of Native weavers, and to stop using the term “Indian Blanket.” They were allowed to use “Indian design blankets.”

    I hope they are successful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09201030685132704499 W

    I work in IP law, and, in case you were wondering, it doesn’t look like Urban’s product names violate those trademarks. The trademark is basically a brand name, so while Urban can use the “Navajo” as a descriptor for their apparel, they can’t use it as a brand name. (Urban has lots of store brands like “Sparkle and Fade” and “Truly Madly Deeply,” to name a few.)
    In addition, there are various “classes” of goods which can be covered by a trademark. There are all different kinds of goods in each class, as well. Most of the TM’s you’ll see are specific to a defined selection of goods within a class.
    On top of that, what owning a trademark really means is that you can persecute people using your TM – that is, if you can (1) find them, (2) contact them, and (3) afford an attorney/law firm to protect your intellectual property.
    It’s nebulous at best, hope this helps.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10131621380855272025 Liz

    I constantly see “Native-esque” printed clothing (lots of belly shirts) on my college campus. Annoys me every time!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13453083546518355859 swandog

    Thanks so much for posting this!

    i went shopping today even and in every store i went through they had fringed patterned shirts that were labeled navajo! it drove me crazy just seeing it everywhere. i love the pattern dont get me wrong i love native american culture, but its awkward to see these skinny blonde caucasian chicks wearing them… its just not right.

  • Kq3artist

    I think tribal courts should appoint a small team of lawyers to create a department that deals with trademark infringement. Most Native people make a small living from their art works and when a mass marketing produces creates a cheap easy to come by product that mimics the the Beautiful work of these artist. They belittle them and take away their livelihood. If they want to carry works that represent Native culture then they should purchase it from Native American Artist or designers. Other artist would not allow stuff to be created in their name, style or likeness Why should these Artist.
    The styles are distinct to Navajo Artist and should be protected. Before the Tribal name becomes nothing more then a free use name like Kleenex and zerox.

  • meanneighborlady

    What a smart move by Navajo Nation to trademark their name. Infringing on trademark law would seem to come with substantially more expensive penalties than the IACA. Other fashion companies, like Ralph Lauren and Eddie Bauer are recognizing the appeal of “Cowichan Sweaters” and so they are selling sweaters that have similar yarn colors and designs, but they are careful to avoid saying much beyond something like “Pacific Northwest Inspired.”

  • Julia

    I’m Canadian but have done much historical research with regards to Navajo material culture, especially their rugs. It saddens me that traditionally inspired Navajo rug patterns are screened onto cheeky boyfriend briefs. Yet one more example of White cultural appropriation of a distinct Aboriginal culture…

  • Anonymous

    Wow.unbelievable how we are still being used with out our consent.of course they mean to call their products Navajo. How many other Tribal names can they choose from 550 And who do they choose?they are always in a position of freedom to do whatever because they can minpulate the law or create new ones to protect. Our tribe needs to do more

  • Reason

    they should buy authentic products from the nations! real art! not cheap crap! sure, there are navajo tourist items that are pony bead and chicken feathers, but there’s something of considerable value still!! it supports the navajo community, made in america! i’d support buying pony beads from mexico at his point . we can leave china people, come on!!!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OHNQCE4RPYXVLRCQCT4M7YGXZ4 peyton

    It’s really ironic to me how people can complain so much about printed ‘navajo’ clothes and caucasians doing this and that and beng racist; really…what do you think you guys are doing by lumping caucasians into one group? It is called assimilation,and embracing other cultures. There are expensive replicas and cheap replicas of everything. ESPECIALLY, in America, where it is a melting pot of culture…get over it.

  • Native Friendly

    Why not then just call it Navajo-esque? You wouldn’t call something German if it wasn’t German. You wouldn’t call something Japanese if it wasn’t Japanese. Why is it ok to call these items Navajo when they’re not? E$pecially when Urban Outfitter$ profit$ from the sale, yet the nation they attribute the item to does not. And really — a flask and panties? Really??

  • scallywag

    Besides accommodating for two arms, two legs (and not even that sometimes…) why should we place any parameters on fashion in the first place? We are after all free to express ourselves (assuming we accept responsibility for our thoughts) and the market by the same token is free to reject our thoughts. So why the hysteria? You don’t like don’t buy. If you do, please help yourself.

    http://scallywagandvagabond.com/2011/10/the-sudden-hysteria-behind-navajo-minorities-inspired-clothing-and-accessories/

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrewnewkirkrose Andy Rose
  • http://www.facebook.com/DanielFRoss Daniel Forrest Ross

    Looks like they’ve gone through and done a find/replace– all the “Navajo” items on their website are now “Printed” or just sans name. (Let’s see if they release an apology to the Printed Nation…)

    Oddly enough, the “Leather Cuff Bracelet” still turns up on a search for navajo.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16847225165520976930 Unknown

    Im indian from tulalip washington.its offensive how would people like it if i started dressing like a pilgram.or say this how whites dress.i dont know i mean really how lame can u be.didnt they do enuff to us natives let alone trying to dress like us ummm thats not how we dress