How about some Navajo panties to go with those sox?
By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 13, 2011
So the celebration this year included an Internet controversy centering on - of all things - Navajo underwear.
Urban Outfitters, a clothing company with stores in 35 states including Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, has come out with a line of products all labeled "Navajo" and using Navajo designs.
This includes a line of women's underwear, T-shirts and even a whiskey flask.
The controversy started on Columbus Day - Monday - when Sasha Houston Brown of Minnesota posted an open letter online to the company complaining about its "cheap, vulgar, and culturally offensive collection."
"As a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company's mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and decor," she wrote. "I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as 'fashion.'"
Brown pointed out that this kind of appropriation is nothing new - sports teams and "ignorant individuals" have been doing it for years trying to "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 or the Navajo Hipster Panty," she writes.
"These and dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures," she added.
She is not alone.
Barbara McGough, general manager of Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise and an Anglo, said she could see why Native Americans would find the products offered by Urban Outfitters to be offensive.
"I think the items are horrendous, especially the Native-designed flask," she said, pointing out that alcohol abuse is a serious problem in Indian Country and the last thing needed is something that "promotes more drinking."
Much of NACE's revenue comes from clothing sales but McGough said there is no comparison to what Urban Outfitters is offering.
"We sell traditional Navajo clothing," she said.
If you look at what Urban Outfitters Navajo selection of products, you have to wonder, she added, "What's Navajo about that?"
"It's beyond disgusting," McGough said.
Within 12 hours, Brown's comments had gone viral and by Tuesday, the New York fashion media was abuzz.
Even New York Magazine put in its two cents' worth, saying, "In addition to drawing criticism for being unpolitically correct, the company has come under fire for using the word 'Navajo,' which is trademarked by the Navajo Nation of American Indians."
That's not exactly correct.
In the 1970s, then Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. raised the idea of getting legal protection for the word "Navajo" as a way of combating its widespread appropriation for commercial use by non-Navajos.
But that went nowhere because of a legal opinion that said the word was in such wide usage that it was in the public domain, beyond the protection of copyright or other intellectual-property laws.
Still, the tribal effort did convince some companies that they should contact the Navajos first before putting out products with the word "Navajo" in them.
In 1990, for instance, when the Japanese automaker Mazda planned to put out a new line of cars branded "Navajo," it approached the tribe and got the government's approval, giving the tribal government one of the cars as a goodwill gesture.
The line didn't catch on and in 1994, the company shut down production. Used Mazda Navajos are still around and can be found easily through online used car sites. A 1994 Navajo, for example, goes for anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on its condition and mileage.
But it's not only the name that matters to Native nations.
In 1971, the Hopi Tribe issued strong objections when owners of the Ezra Brooks bourbon brand issued a series of decanters - still available on collector Web sites - shaped like Hopi katsina dolls. It also made a cigar-store Indian decanter.
Once he learned of the katsina decanters, then Hopi Chairman Clarence Hamilton said he was planning legal action to stop the sale of the product. But a day later, company officials said they had only manufactured 2,000 of them and would destroy the molds so no more could be manufactured.
The katsina - or "kachina" as the company called them - decanters have become collector's items, with a bottle in pristine condition going for several hundred dollars.
New York Magazine also brought up another issue, pointing out that under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, it's illegal for a company to imply that its products might be made by Native Americans when they aren't.
No comment from DOJ
Comments quoting a purported cease-and-desist demand sent to the company months ago by Navajo Nation Attorney General Harrison Tsosie are ricocheting around the Web.
But as of press time, Tsosie's office had not responded to a request to confirm it sent a letter, and a spokesman for the company said it has not received one.
Ed Looram, director of public relations and content for the Urban Outfitters brand, made no apologies for the company's new clothing line.
"Like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come. The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term 'Navajo' have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years," Looram said. "We currently have no plans to modify or discontinue any of these products.
"As of this writing the Urban Outfitters brand has not been contacted by any representatives of the Navajo Nation," he said.
Urban Outfitters is a $3.7 billion company that operates under names like Free People, Terrain and Leifsdottir.
The Navajo controversy hasn't been its only problem in the past few months.
Stevie Koerner, an artist, accused the company of stealing his designs and a few weeks ago pop star Miley Cyrus tweeted that she loves it that "everyone is hating on Urban Outfitters."
Cyrus' issue, however, is not cultural appropriation - she was offended because the company donated $13,000 to the presidential campaign of gay rights opponent Rick Santorum, according to his Web site.