Urban Outfitters Renames “Navajo” Products, Doesn’t Admit They Were Bad Idea

The renamed flask from Urban Outfitters.

Urban Outfitters has overnight renamed all its “Navajo” products following ongoing criticism for cultural appropriation and a trademark violations.

As of Monday, Urban Outfitters used the word “Navajo” in 20 or so product names, the two most notorious of which included the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and what the Globe and Mail calls the “impossibly ill-advised” “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask,” as well as earrings, shoes, socks, dresses, and sweaters.

And now? They don’t. In many cases, the word “Navajo” has been replaced with “printed” or a variation thereof. Searching the site returns no results.

In June, the Navajo Nation attorney general send Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter for trademark infringement (in addition to referring to a tribe, the Navajo Nation has 12 trademarks on the use of the word “Navajo,” including ones related to clothing and online retail). Part of that letter, as posted on Native Approrpiations, reads:

“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 recently as last Thursday, Ed Looram, a PR rep for Urban Outfitters, denied any contact with the Navajo Nation. He also argued that Native American-inspired items are currently common in fashion, and that the company had no plans to modify or discontinue any of the products in question. He also denied the existence of the cease-and–desist letter, writing: “As of this writing the Urban Outfitters brand has not been contacted by any representatives of the Navajo Nation.”

In an open letter to the CEO of Urban Outfitters on Racialicious last week that has been cited in a significant number of articles related to this story, Sasha Houston Brown argues that not only are the products offensive, they are illegal:

“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. [...]

I stand in solidarity with the Navajo Nation and ask that you not only cease and desist selling products falsely using the Navajo name, but that you also stop selling faux Indian apparel that objectifies all tribes.”

Primarily concerned with overt cultural and religious appropriation, Brown (who also had an interesting interview on Q earlier this week) also discusses trademark infringement, perpetuating stereotypes, and the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law that prevents selling products in a way that suggests they were created by or associated with a particular Indian* person, Indian Tribe, or a related organization, unless the products in question actually are (Although the act only protects products that fall under the category of arts and crafts, the trademark infringement has the illegality of the “Navajo” product line covered). She also mentions the cease-and-desist letter.

Three days later, Urban Outfitters responded to Brown’s letter with the following statement:

“The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term ‘Navajo’ have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years. We currently have no plans to modify or discontinue any product lines.”

In this response, the company seems to be saying three things: 1. we can’t be bothered to give you a proper response and so are releasing this barely-a-step-up-from-no-comment statement; 2. we’re just jumping on the bandwagon, so it’s not our fault; and 3. we also don’t know how to spell.

In an interview with Jezebel, Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordhan University School of Law, said:

“It’s a long-standing issue, you know, and it’s not just in the fashion world. It’s the Jeep Cherokee. It’s the Washington Redskins. And there was enormous litigation over that trademark. It’s an issue when you have indigenous peoples in general or Native Americans in particular who have been subject to actual genocide, and then you come back around with what some people characterize as cultural genocide. The pillaging of land, the pillaging of personal property, followed by the pillaging of what could be considered intellectual property. It’s something that occurs against a background of a lot of other offensive actions.”

Since the name changes, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice released a statement saying that the product name changes, which were first reported in Indian Country Today, were positive and encouraging:

“The Urban Outfitters Corporation’s recent removal of the Navajo name from its online marketing and retailing are positive actions that are more consistent with the corporation’s responsibilities than previously demonstrated.

If the company has also ceased using the Navajo name in conjunction with its merchandise in its retail stores and print-media advertising, these are encouraging steps by the company towards amicably resolving this matter.”

In all trademark infringement cases, the sooner there is action against the infringer, the more effective the case is likely to be. The early action the Navajo Nation took against Urban Outfitters is commendable, and should have been enough to lead to renaming the products directly. Instead, Brown’s letter is equally commendable, as the resulting media firestorm seems to be the real reason the company actually took action.

*This is the term used in legal language in the United States, which is the only reason it is used here.

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Carolyn is the NSFW Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance copy editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, the Billfold, and other places. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 257 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    So because our legal language incorrectly refers to Native Americans as “Indians”, that justifies you making the same stupid error? Weak excuse.

    Anyway, more idiotic behavior from UO. They’ve pulled controversial shit like this before, not like I needed another reason to never buy anything from them.

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      I know some Native American women who prefer ‘Indian’ or use it interchangeably, mostly because the word “Native” has negative connotations towards savagery. If we’re really splitting hairs, First Peoples is more PC right now, so I’d lay off the jump to criticize so quickly. There’s nothing educational about the word “stupid”.

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        Nothing educational about perpetuating ignorance either. In fact I’d say it’s just the opposite, wouldn’t you agree?

        And fine. If they prefer First Peoples, then that’s what I’ll use from now on.

  2. Thumb up 0

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    If the author changed had reported the law but changed the wording of the legislation, she would have misdescribed the law as it stands. It seems to me she was in the difficult position of needing to balance accurate reporting with speaking respectfully, and she chose to report the law as it presently exists while acknowledging that its language is flawed. To me it looks like a thoughtful choice rather than a stupid error.

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      Alright, fair enough.

      Still get deeply annoyed every time I see it, sorry. The fact that an actual Native American woman described herself as Indian pissed me off and I think my frustration spilled over into Carolyn’s own use.

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        Idk, if someone who is a member of that culture wants to call herself “Indian” instead of “Native American”, whats it to you? I have several Native American friends and they call themselves Indian. I wouldn’t, but that’s because I’m not a part of that culture.
        To me it’s the same as us being able to call ourselves “dykes” but I wouldn’t want a straight person calling me that.

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          Yeah, I think telling a Native woman that she can’t call herself Indian is similar telling a Muslim woman to take off that hijab already.

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          Um, wow. One of the most intellectually dishonest and judgmental comments I have ever seen on this site. Thanks for making baseless assumptions about me.

          The two situations are in no way the same. The latter would be judging the culture itself and declaring it inferior to one’s own, while trying to exert unwarranted control on an important belief/practice of another person.

          Telling a Native American that s/he is not Indian and should not be called such is not disrespectful, because they are not Indian. They are natives of America. If they don’t want to be called Native Americans for whatever reason(s) then fine. But Indian/Native Indian is not a proper or correct substitute.

          And for every NA you find who uses “Indian” to describe him/herself you’ll find one who thinks it’s offensive. Likewise there are Indians who get offended when Native Americans are called Indian. Guess the people here don’t care about their opinions though, huh?

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          That’s why I said “similar to” and “not the same.”

          And there are Muslim women who find the idea of wearing a hijab offensive.

          I think the key word here is “herself.” Self-identification is a thing, yes?

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          They’re self-identifying as something that’s objectively wrong. It’d be like if I started identifying as a black person. No one would accept that because it’s pretty clear that I’m not. It’s just as clear that Native Americans are not Indian. Just because they’ve been incorrectly (which is the key word here) called “Indian” for years does not make them Indian, just like referring to myself as a black person does not make me black.

          Also, I still fail to see how insulting a woman’s beliefs is in any way similar to refusing to call a group of people what they’re not. Would it be just as controversial to refuse to call a white man black, even if he claimed he was?

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          I understand what Raef is saying. I mean the only reason why NA were described as Indians is because the Europeans thought they had arrived in India. It was a mistake from the get go. One of my best friends is Indian (from Mumbai), we both went to school in NB and studies NA Studies and she always thought it was weird that still today people refer to NA as Indians as it is not a proper term. I mean a French person wouldn’t want to be called Italian, NA cultures & Indian Cultures are so different and both very diverse, I feel like it’s disrespectful and kind of a way to just erase the credibility of both people all together. I mean it’s all good that a NA woman calls herself Indian and all but in the end of the day she just isn’t Indian…

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          Yeah my impression has been that lots of descendents of the original people inhabiting the Americas in the 1600s actually prefer the terms Indian and American Indian (as oppose to Native American or First People) however it’s unclear to me if this is an ingroup language situation.

          Regardless, in my opinion, Carolyn was spot on to use the language of the law to describe it, while simultaneously explaining that this was her reason for doing so. Otherwise she might have misconstrued it

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          Because they’re not Indian. That’s fact. The only reason the word was ever associated with them was due to ignorance. Them perpetuating ignorance does annoy me.

          Also, dykes/lesbian isn’t the same as Indian/Native American. While both ‘dyke’ and ‘lesbian’ both mean gay woman, Indians are a completely different people with a completely different culture than Native Americans.

          Also, when ones says “Indian” one must often clarify which group of people is being talked about. And that is ridiculous.

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    Wow, this is disgusting, from the product concept in itself to UO’s casual dismissal of the Navajo Nation and Sasha Houston Brown. UO sells plenty of cute hipster stuff coveted by my dirty hipster self, but given that they appear to be run by asses, I will joyfully never buy anything from them until they sincerely apologise and change their ways.

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    I had no idea that UO had Native America themed FLASKS. Fucking assholes. And if they weren’t being offensive enough, simply ignoring AN ENTIRE FUCKING NATION is just not smart. The Navajo nation is one of the post powerful Native American bodies. UO doesn’t understand what the fuck it’s doing.

    I feel personally offended, which doesn’t happen often.

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    This will probably offend someone, but serious question: The Cheesecake Factory has a sandwich called The Navajo. I suspect this sandwich has nothing to do with the Navajo people. Why are the printed designs offensive and the sandwich is not? (Or maybe the sandwich is also offensive. As far as I can tell, the Cheesecake Factory still sells it.) I mean, as someone who is both white (majority) and lesbian (minority) I very much understand how things are more sensitive when dealing with an oppressed minority (call me a cracker if you want, but don’t call me a dyke). I’m just trying to imagine if they named this design for a different group of people if it would still be considered offensive. Is it offensive precisely because they chose “Navajo,” a group that’s identity has already been stolen by the American settlers and not, say, “French?”

    I come from a part of the country where there is a strong Native American influence. All the names of our counties are Native American. Many of our towns and cities are. I would regularly pass through American Indian Reservations and I’ve been appalled by those who want to repeal the little consolation given to American Indians by taking away tribal sovereignty. It’s been a big fight and I am on Native Americans sides on this. I’ve done a little reading about Native Americans in my home region and have interviewed some members of an Indian nation where I’m from. I just haven’t ever personally known anyone who is full American Indian or is a member of an Indian nation and I’ve never gotten to ask questions about the touchier stuff. I’d like to learn more. I think it’s really interesting.

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      To answer just a piece of your question, it’s about privilege and power. Let’s look at FRENCH vs. NAVAJO. When we brand objects “French” in this country, what does it evoke? Class, wealth, snaziness–am I right? Navajo on the other hand is used as a cheap joke.

      One can only brand oneself Navajo, in this particular instance, if one’s intent is to be ironically crass.

      A NAVAJO WRAPPED FUCKING FLASK!
      (Not yelling at you. Not yelling at you).

      BUT A FUCKING FLASK, URBAN OUTFITTERS?

      Is that supposed to be ironic? Or funny? Or subversive? UO, you can’t make a joke at the expense of someone/or an entire set of people without them being there to be a part of the joke. And you don’t get to call them a cry baby, in a definitely irritated voice, when they call you out on your fuckery.

      So yes, in this particular instance, it’s deeply offensive and of terrible taste.

      You know, when something happens that’s terrible, and then you make a joke, and everyone looks at you and the only thing you can say with a sheepish look on your face is: “too early?”

      Yes, it’s too early, still. It will always be too early to be ironic about mass genocide and robbery.

      So unfortunately for all of America who enjoys a good deal of white priviledge every day. It will never ever be okay to make that/those jokes. Or capitalize, with irony, on a history that still feels very fresh and very true, still for a lot of people.

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        I am not defending UO. I am not saying they have the right to use trademarked terms or appropriate the culture of a widely underrepresented group.

        But, UO has been making fabric covered flasks for years. When I was in high school a million years ago they were selling ones covered in glittery pink fabric when that was a thing. When roosters were in they had rooster printed on the front of the fabric. When polkadots came in they were covered in polkadots. It seems to me that this wasn’t an intentional joke, just a “we make flasks wrapped in fabric, we make this fabric, let’s covered the flasks with our new fabric.” Yes, in retrospect, they should realize this was a very dumb choice. I just doubt it was an intentional one.

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        Well, it just dawned on me that alcoholism is kind of a problem in the Native American community. So given, that, I can see why all Native Americans, not just Navajo, would find the flask distasteful. It just seems like one of those things that privileged white people don’t understand or realize. I do realize Urban Outfitters doesn’t have a shiny track record but it seems reasonable to think the offense was unintentional, and then after they launched a product line with that name, it was hard to undo. Either way, I don’t know if I entirely understand what’s offensive about the Navajo product line, but I can understand a) there is room for it to be offensive when a corporation basically borrows a cultural identity, b) people do find it offensive and c) they have the right to. However, still, it seems like Urban Outfitters decision was more related to possible trademark/legal issues.

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    i was having an interesting conversation with someone about hipster culture a few days ago and we came to these conclusions:
    1. hipster culture is immensely ironic because they are supposed to be anticorporations and mainstream yet many hipsters shop at h&m and urban outfitters large mainstream corporations
    2. hipsters are hypocrites: they like to pretend they don’t have money yet they go to outlandishly expensive music festivals and buy outlandishly expensive faux thrift store wear
    3. they culturally appropriate from minorities
    4. they slum it in grungier areas to feel like they are down with the cause while their middle class/upper middle class parents pay their rent thus raising the cost of living in the slumy areas they moved to thus kicking out the people they want to pretend to be like
    5. they pretend to be down with the cause but really they are trying to find their place in the world. the occupy movement has been infiltrated by rich hipsters who are the epitome of what the occupy movement is fighting against
    6. hipster jump on the bandwagon just to be cool and different. vegetarianism is so watered down now because every hipster has to be for animal rights and a vegan who supports fair trade, drinks at local coffee houses, and drive hybrids.

    i have never liked urban outfitters because their clothing is overpriced, cheap, and not creative. the average urban shopper epitomizes all that i dislike about hipsters and i hate that urban supports homophobia (look it up urban gives money to republican incumbents against gay marriage).

    i am so over the hipster culture.

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    I do honestly wonder where Pendleton fits into all of this. There’s a history and all I know of it is one-sided (i.e. on their website) and/or wikipedia-based, so. If anybody has helpful information where Pendleton is concerned, I’d love to know.

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