The Navajo, like many Native American tribes, have a rich cultural history. One great expression of the Southwestern native culture comes through the visual arts. The Navajo or Diné, as they are also known, have always been makers of mesmerizingly geometric blankets and rugs, with a great talent for silversmithy, particularly when it comes to jewelry.
So that when Urban Outfitters used the Navajo name and patterns in 2001 for a line of underwear, not to mention other products like flasks and jewelry, the Navajo were understandably upset. For the tribe, it was cultural appropriation of the most unethical, or at least the most disrespectful, sort. The Navajo, who hold trademarks on the "Navajo" name, filed a federal lawsuit in 2012, arguing that Urban Outfitters violated trademarks and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal for any individual or company to falsely imply that goods have been made by the Navajo.
In December 2015, a federal judge allowed the Navajo lawsuit to proceed. The lawsuit took a bit of a hit this past April when New Mexico district court judge Bruce D. Black dismissed tribe’s trademark dilutions claims when the tribe’s lawyers were not able to prove the Navajo name was “famous.” But Urban Outfitters and subsidiaries Anthropologie and Free People still face six other counts, including false advertising, trademark infringement, and unfair competition.
Navajo artist Lehi Thunder Voice Eagle Sanchez is one of the Diné watching this case closely. Sanchez isn’t just watching as a concerned member of the tribe, but as an artist very much invested in the Navajo’s visual arts legacy, and that of the wider Native American peoples.
Sanchez, a multimedia artist recognized for his work with digital designs, oil paintings, sketches and photography, says a lot of his artistic influence comes from his parents. His mother hails from the Navajo reservation, while his father is a Totonac, a tribe just south of the US-Mexico border. (Sanchez and his father Ezekial Sanchez run the wilderness therapy program Anasazi, where they teach at-risk youth wilderness survival skills.)
Growing up, Sanchez’ family always had beads, jewelry, and beautiful textiles in their home. On their walls hung paintings made by native people, both from the Navajo and other tribes. Though born on the Navajo reservation, his parents moved the family off reservation for his father’s job when he was two years. Even so, they visited the reservation often, which allowed Sanchez to be raised in both worlds, thus shaping his artistic approach.
“Within the culture, my mom has taught me about certain patterns and symbols that have specific meaning,” Sanchez says. “Some of these symbols can be sacred and done as a ceremony, while others are to keep records or tell stories. I know there is big concern on what is being used from our culture and how it is being used by those outside of our culture. Regardless of one’s opinion, I feel communication between Native Americans and those using Native American cultural elements is paramount.”
“Many people will look at a Navajo Rug and only see patterns,” he adds. “For the Navajos they see mountains, birds, plants, animals, even the traditional Navajo bun. In the old ways, creating a rug started with a prayer and each piece was given a meaning.”
Sanchez points to sand paintings, an ephemeral type of art, to emphasize how much Navajo art is imbued with symbolic meaning. At ceremonies, intricate sand paintings are created that Sanchez says might take days to complete. And once the ceremony is over the Navajo wipe the sand paintings away.
“The art created is not intended to be shared outside of that particular ceremony,” Sanchez explains. “Rather, it is used to symbolize the journey and represent the uniqueness of that present moment. When a sand painting is wiped away, it is gone, but what it represents is meant to be kept and reserved for those that were in attendance. The sacredness comes in the feeling provoked in the heart at the time of its creation.”
Urban Outfitters obviously had no understanding of this approach to the arts when creating a line of Navajo products. They simply did it, then stamped the tribe’s name on it. There was, as Sanchez notes, no real consideration for the “copious amounts of tragedy and trauma” from past events that still hurt the Navajo.
“I will be real with you, I think sometimes our people can be overly sensitive due to triggers from our past—I have been there,” Sanchez says. “In some ways, I am still sensitive about anything appropriating our culture. It was not too long ago that we were pushed off our land and put on reservations. It was not too long ago that we were taken from our families and forced into boarding schools where they cut our hair and gave us government clothing, and where we were beaten for talking in our language or of anything traditional.”
The Navajo, he says, are still working their way through healing. They are also trying to find a new beginning. And this process is not in any way helped by corporate branded Navajo underwear, or even football teams like the Washington Redskins, with people advising native peoples to just deal with how they are characterized and used.
“To us, it often feels like a slap in the face in the midst of trying to move forward,” Sanchez says. “Someone mentioned that that Urban Outfitters was trying to honor us. Underwear and some whisky flasks are not the way we wish to honor our elders.”
Sanchez believes that if Urban Outfitters would have named their brand “Southwestern” or even “Native-inspired” it might have eliminated many issues that arose within the ranks of the Navajo tribe. But the moment they branded those underwear “Navajo,” the Diné were tied to the product. They never asked for a co-branding opportunity, and Urban Outfitters certainly didn’t either.
“We feel as though they are trying to represent us with these underwear,” Sanchez says. “We did not create the underwear, and yet we are now associated with them. For me, it is like forging a signature on a painting.”
Urban Outfitters did not want to remove the Navajo name from the product, and though eventually they discontinued the line of products, Sanchez believes the Navajo deserved a public apology from the company.
“It definitely rubbed people the wrong way, and was not handled appropriately,” says Sanchez. “People desire to be recognized and heard, especially when they have felt otherwise since settlers landed on this continent.”
This is why the lawsuit is so important, not only for the Navajo, but for all Native American tribes. Sanchez says there is a wide awareness of this lawsuit amongst First Nation peoples. They know that the outcome will set a precedent that could come to affect all tribes.
“For a lot of other tribes, they can see where we are coming from because they share in the same past experiences and struggles,” says Sanchez, who credits the internet and social media with creating strong intra-tribal bonds. “Now with technology, all tribes are talking about issues like these. It has made it easier to keep up on events and other things going on.”
Noel Bennetto, an artist and maker of Native clothing and accessories who is half Chiricahua Apache and Mexican Indian, is one such person. For her, what Urban Outfitters did is wrong on a number of levels, from the complete lack of corporate ethics to people ignorantly buying from an unethical source.
“[There is] exploitation for their benefit alone and in doing so [it] continues to dehumanize American Indians as ‘other’ or ‘something’ of the past,” Bennetto says. “This implies that it's free for the taking since they are no longer present, or somewhat fictitious, an icon of the West, not an existing culture.”
“In general I've seen Urban Outfitters and their other company Anthropologie rip off and reproduce many designs they don't have permission to use, from small independent designers to whole cultures as is such with this case,” she adds. “They are very much not alone in doing so, unfortunately.”
Ho-Chunk member and Chicago-based comedian Casey Brown says that the Navajo lawsuit will legally reinforce the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. This, he says, will protect every tribe and their own traditional artistic expression.
“I’m a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and we have a particular design of appliqué that is distinctly ours,” he says. “Artisans from other tribes do not make Ho-Chunk appliqué and sell it as authentic. Just as a Ho-Chunk artist would never make a Pueblo kachina doll—you’d get run off the pow-wow vendors circuit. To see your tribe’s name and designs on a flask or a pair of panties sold by a non-native source is not only offensive but illegal.”
“For many Native American artisans, it’s not just a way to express and pass on their culture but their livelihood,” Brown adds. “Providing cheaper mass-produced versions of handmade pieces of that take countless hours to create cheapens the genuine product. For Urban Outfitters to sell Navajo designs under the moniker of Navajo shows colonization still exists. Many people think of colonization as dominant forces taking over indigenous land for their own use. But intellectual colonialism is the modern manifest destiny.”
For Sanchez as well as Bennetto and Brown, there is a proper way to find and purchase Native goods. Sanchez points to the Indian Market in Sante Fe, New Mexico, where over 4,000 vendors from all over the country sell a wide assortment of amazing arts and crafts. “The first time I went, I was blown away by how many artists were still making textiles, jewelry, and art and doing it the old way and others that were adding their own flare with a modern twist,” Sanchez says.
If people are looking for clothing, Sanchez suggests people check out the work of native artist Bethany Yellowtail. Sanchez calls Yellowtail’s traditional Native designs exquisite, while also offering praise for her efforts in speaking out on cultural appropriation.
“Sho Sho Esquiro is another clothing designer, who I have become friends with, and am highly in support of,” says Sanchez. “Her high-end pieces incorporate traditional designs with her own modern styles, all inspired by her cultural background.”
“Other designers such as Orlando Dugi are making an impact in the Native community,” he adds. “DesignHouse of Darylene is a new upcoming collective that spans from traditional roots to urban native punk vibes. Yazzi is another friend of mine who designs t-shirts (OXDX), and NTVS Clothing. He shares his messages with what he prints onto the clothing. I have a shirt of his that says ‘Native Americans discovered Columbus,’ giving another perspective on the Columbus story.”
For his part, Brown suggests people go to a pow-wow. They are open to everyone, Native and non-Native alike. He says it’s a great way to meet people who create art and crafts.
“Indian Country Today puts out an annual pow-wow guide for North America,” Brown says. “Pow-wow happens all year long but Memorial Day to Labor Day is when the biggest ones happen throughout the country and even close or in most urban areas. Beyond Buckskin has the best database of legit artists, including more contemporary designers, a blog about Native fashion, and an online store.”
Bennetto says that those interested in tribal artworks should look up the local tribal office, then either call or write them asking about Native American makers. Sanchez suggests those interested in Native visual arts and goods visit the Facebook page Natives United.
“Skip the cheesy trading post or fake replica crap,” Bennetto says. “Don't wear headdresses to music festivals (or ever) or offensive stereotypes of American Indians and say you're being respectful or think it's okay because ‘it's vintage.’”
The group posts upcoming events and featured artists that are worth checking out. Sanchez says that it wouldn’t hurt to acquaint one’s self with the repercussions triggered by America’s history of colonization, genocide and forced removal (signed into law by President Andrew Jackson) visited upon Native peoples.
“No one hears the stories of native children loaded into vehicles like cattle and carted to concrete building where their hair was cut and took away their traditional wear,” Sanchez says.
“My people and I have seen and experienced the repercussions,” Sanchez says. “Because of this, some of our communication might come across as hostile or angry. We have been through a lot; so much has been taken from us. We are passionate about our culture and are trying to protect what pieces we have left.”
At the time of publication, The Creators Project has reached out to Urban Outfitters for comment.