It doesn’t take more than the ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirt to know that corporate America loves to pimp other people’s culture for profits.
So it wasn’t all that surprising when Urban Outfitters released 21 products as part of its new "Navajo" fashion line. The new garments included the "Navajo Flask" and the "Navajo Hipster Panty."
But the Navajo Nation, which owns the trademark to the name "Navajo," didn’t make it easy for the company to sell its products. And in the complicated legal battle that’s ensued, the familiar theme of how and if companies should be able to profit off of the cultural symbols of communities of color has once again taken center stage.
Recently, the Navajo Nation sent Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter in an effort to stop the company from using the trademarked name. "When products that have absolutely no connection to the Navajo Nation, its entities, its people, and their products are marketed and retailed under the guise that they are Navajo in origin, the Navajo Nation does not regard this as benign or trivial," the tribe’s attorney Brian Lewis told the Washington Post last week.
Neither the Navajo Nation nor Urban Outfitters responded to requests for comments from Colorlines.com this week. But it seems that the Navajo Nation got its demands met. This week Jenna Sauers at Jezebel noticed that the company had simply re-named the products. For instance, the "Navajo Hipster Panty" is now just the "Printed Hipster Panty."
But for some, there’s a larger ethical question of whether any mainstream company can and should profit off of Native culture.
Sasha Houston Brown is a 24-year-old Native American woman who lives in Minneapolis. On Columbus Day, she published a scathing open letter on Racialicious addressed directly to Glen T. Senk, CEO of Urban Outfitters, Inc. In it, she describes her visceral reaction to seeing the products at a local Urban Outfitters store. Brown described the collection as "distasteful and racially demeaning" and criticized the company for what she called its "perverted cultural appropriation."
The letter apparently got the company’s attention. A user logged into the Disqus comment system as "Glenn T. Senk" responded, saying that the company is "deeply sorry this issue has triggered an offended reaction" and posting the company’s Philadelphia phone number to discuss the matter. Brown followed up, but has not yet received a response.
On Thursday afternoon, Brown spoke to Colorlines.com about why she wrote the letter. "My issue was never about a specific company," Brown said by phone. "They shouldn’t have the right to profit off of our culture."
She continued: "It’s not just about a pair of underwear or a flask, it’s about how we are viewed by corporate America and dominant society."
Brown said she had become increasingly disturbed by what she called "Indian chic," which she described as the recurring trend in mainstream fashion and jewelry to mimic Native prints. She noted that it was particularly disturbing because Native artists who create fashion and jewelry are seldom recognized for their work. "We’re in a culture where Native people are invisible in the mainstream," she said. "It really plays into the culture. Here you have a dominant corporation interpreting what they believe to be Native fashion or art, ripping it off, and making a profit."
So should mainstream fashion designers stay away from pieces that are inspired by indigenous art? Not exactly, according to Brown. "If it’s done in the appropriate manner, it could be a really great segue for designers to have real conversations with tribes about the art’s history and where it comes from."
But, Brown warned, it’s a thin and often dangerous line to walk.
"There’s no real recognition of the history of this nation, in terms of how we were robbed of our land and culture," she says. "We’ve fought so hard to protect what little we have today."