How the Navajo Nation Beat Urban Outfitters

Thanks to strong social platforms and online media, e-commerce sites like Urban Outfitters can’t afford many more PR disasters.

When Sasha Houston Brown, a Native American woman, walked into an Urban Outfitters weeks ago, she found the fast fashion chain selling what they refer to as their “Navajo Collection.” Houston-Brown was offended by the imported “plastic dream catchers 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” that included items like a Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask and Navajo Hipster Panty.

After reading Native American activist Houston Brown’s compelling An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day, member Tiffanie Wilson went online and found herself looking at the same offensive “Navajo inspired” garb and as another woman of Native American descent, “was shocked to find such culturally insensitive and offensive products being sold to make a profit.” Her petition was followed by a cease and desist letter to Urban Outfitters from the Navajo Nation’s very own government. Not too surprisingly, only 10 days later, Wilson had her victory with over 16,600 people backing her petition against Urban Outfitters and the entire collection being pulled. But although the Navajo name disappeared from the 20 or so items, they were simply renamed. You can now find the “Navajo Hipster Panty” as the “Printed Hipster Panty.”

No stranger to pimping politically incorrect, Urban Outfitters has had at least seven of these legal run-ins.

Was this a win or not for the Navajo Nation? 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. So while we toast the win for Houston Brown and Wilson, like Color Lines comments, for some, “there’s a larger ethical question of whether any mainstream company can and should profit off of Native culture,” if the culture hasn’t any say. The bigger question is, where do companies like Urban Outfitters, Forever21 and H&M get the courage to do so much bad?

I caught up with Houston Brown last week to ask how she felt about what transpired with Urban Outfitters.

Was this your first time calling a company out on using the Navajo name?

Prior to my letter to Urban Outfitters, I had never called out or contacted a company for using a tribal name, but I have experienced racism my entire life and have always taken a stand against it.

The issue at hand is larger than Urban Outfitter’s use of the name of this specific tribal nation – their use of a tribal name is reflective of Western societal treatment of Indigenous peoples. We are seldom brought into the mainstream public sphere (except on occasions such as Thanksgiving, and of course Halloween, when children can still ‘dress up’ as an Indian). Our collective history, vast contributions to the world and tremendous cultural resiliency are frequently trivialized or hidden. Urban Outfitter’s offensive product line is one example of the ongoing cultural commodification and racism we face daily.

If they had just used the prints and not the Navajo name would you still have backed this petition?

Well, you certainly would not have the same legal standing and violation of federal law, but using the faux-Indian prints would still be extremely derogatory and offensive and worth challenging.

The Native American trend is huge right now. When is it okay to reference and what would have been a better way for Urban Outfitters to have promoted their collection?

It is more than simply referencing Native American tribes (i.e. sovereign nations); companies should be obligated to follow trademark law and federal legislation designed to protect tribes against corporate encroachment and appropriation.

I don’t have an issue with individuals being inspired by Native American art and style or wearing authentic Native jewelry or clothing. Native peoples, artists and businesses should be the creators of Native fashion and be the beneficiaries of the sale of Native goods. Corporations don’t have the right to illegally rip off our art, produce it cheaply oversees and make a profit on our culture.

I saw in a CBS News article that had UO gone to the Navajo Nation and asked to collaborate, it was something that could have proved a mutually beneficial relationship. Is this something the Navajo Nation has considered?

If Urban Outfitters had gone to the Navajo Nation, there wouldn’t be issue – there also wouldn’t be a hipster panty! There are so many talented Native artists and designers who could create authentic and beautiful native apparel and jewelry. Instead, Urban Outfitters chose to make a cheap imitation of what they interpret as Navajo design.

The unemployment rate in Indian country is higher then anywhere else in the nation and there is no reason that Navajo people should not be able to design and produce Navajo-branded fashion for retailers.

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.