Urban Outfitter's 'Navajo' Problem Becomes A Legal Issue

Sasha Houston Brown of Minneapolis published a strongly worded open letter to Urban Outfitters yesterday at Racialicious. Brown, who directly addresses C.E.O. Glen Senk, takes the clothing chain to task for its appropriation of Native American arts and crafts, and its frequent use of the word "Navajo" in product names and descriptions:

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.

Brown's letter is passionate, informed, and well-argued. What could be more disrespectful than pilfering Native American intellectual property by knocking off tribal arts and crafts, and — rather than supporting Native artisans — having the knock-offs made cheaply overseas? All of the 24 items currently available in Urban Outfitters' online store that include the term "Navajo" in the name are imported, save one men's jacket and one women's jacket.

Selling a "Navajo Hipster Panty" may be cheesy and kind of offensive, but, more worrisomely perhaps for Urban Outfitters, it could also be illegal. In the U.S., under the terms of the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990 and the Federal Trade Commission Act, it is prohibited to falsely claim, or even imply, that a product is Native American-made when it is not. The Department of the Interior says:

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

"Navajo" isn't an aesthetic movement — it's a legal entity, a tribe of people, and an actual nation.

And, as it turns out, it's a nation with trademarks. The Navajo Nation holds 12 trademarks on the use of the term "Navajo," including two that cover various forms of clothing and one that covers online retailing. The Attorney General of the Navajo Nation actually wrote to Urban Outfitters months ago asking the corporation to cease and desist using its trademarks to sell clothing and accessories that have nothing to do with any actual Navajo people or designs.

Brown's letter elicited this comment from a user logged into the Disqus comment system as "Glen T Senk". It was posted around 10:30 p.m. EST yesterday:

Hello Sasha,

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

That is in fact the phone number for Urban Outfitters' corporate headquarters. The number is, however, publicly available along with the contact information for all of Urban Outfitters' directors and corporate officers.

Glen Senk's assistant couldn't confirm whether it was really Senk who left the comment — "This is the first I'm hearing of it," she said when I reached her by phone this afternoon. A call to Urban Outfitters' PR department seeking clarification about the purported Senk comment, and about the company's response to the Navajo Nation's cease-and-desist, has yet to be returned. Curious to know whether Brown herself called the number, I left a message for her as well. I'll update with their responses.

Pictured: Just some of the various "Navajo" items Urban Outfitters sells, including: the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, $18; the Navajo Hipster Panty, $8; and the Navajo Sock, on sale for $6.99.

An Open Letter To Urban Outfitters On Columbus Day [Racialicious]
Urban Outfitters Is Obsessed With Navajos [Native Appropriations]