Who Should Benefit From The Word "Navajo"?
October 26, 2011

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The word “Navajo” no longer appears on Urban Outfitters' website. The trendy clothing chain has removed it from the names of numerous products in the wake of criticism from the Navajo Nation. The tribe has trademarks on the Navajo name.

The controversy brings up a bigger debate about private business misrepresenting and profiting from Native American imagery.

Designers often borrow from other cultures. And this fall’s runways and fashion magazines show a lot of southwest inspiration – including fabrics that resemble woven tapestries. The colors and geometric designs in Navajo rugs come from the natural world the weavers work in.

Jessica Metcalfe is the creator of the blog Beyond Buckskin and follows Native American fashion. She says the very act of weaving is sacred.

"You are recreating some of the acts that the ancient holy people, that the ancestors, had done in order to create the world," Metcalfe said. "The world was created by weaving."

Metcalfe, who is Turtle Mountain Chippewa, suggests a solution: Designers who are inspired by tribes should collaborate with a Native American weaver.

"The upscale designers are profiting. The mass produced stores are profiting, but we are being left out of this cycle,” Metcalfe said. “We are being left out of not only the profiting of it, but also the right to represent ourselves."

Northern Arizona University economics professor Ronald Gunderson said retailers are selling native patterns for a reason. Words like “Navajo” are an endorsement for authenticity that lends certain legitimacy to a product.

"The Navajo name does have and does connote a certain quality work," Gunderson said.

The Navajo Nation has licensed its name to other businesses in exchange for a share of their profits. It has also identified about two dozen companies it believes are violating the Navajo trademark.

Photo courtesy Urban Outfitters.
The “Navajo Hipster Panty” offered by Urban Outfitters.

Urban Outfitters used “Navajo” to describe 20 products before they decided to change course. Two items in particular stirred up the recent controversy: The “Navajo Hipster Panty” and the “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask.”

Northern Arizona University anthropology professor Kerry Thompson is a member of the Navajo Nation.

"Attaching Native American imagery and iconography to something related to alcohol is particularly problematic and it’s ignorant," Thompson said "It really shows that Urban Outfitters has no idea what the lived experience is of Native Americans in this country."

The Urban Outfitters products are now described on the store's site as “printed” instead of “Navajo.”

Company spokesman Ed Looram confirmed that the clothing chain recently received a cease-and-desist letter from the Navajo tribe and has since scrubbed the site.

This isn’t the company’s first scandal. In 2005, protesters picketed the store over T-shirts that said: “New Mexico, Cleaner than Regular Mexico.

"For many tribes this is the final indignity," said Michael Brown, an anthropologist from Williams College.

"It’s a cliché. But cliché with a ring of historical truth,” Brown said. “First, you took our land. Now, you want our culture. So this is why the lines are being drawn."

Brown said this controversy could be avoided if companies just asked.

Take Southwest Airlines. They sought permission from the Pueblo Zia tribe to use an image from the tribe’s pottery on one of its planes. It’s the ubiquitous red sun symbol that appears on the state of New Mexico’s flag and license plates. According to Brown, though, the state of New Mexico did not ask the tribe’s permission in 1920.