Navajo Nation sues Urban Outfitters for trademark violations

Urban Outfitters, known for its unapologetic cultural appropriation, is being sued by Navajo Nation for its use of the word Navajo in its clothing line.

The lawsuit filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico alleges trademark violations and violations of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal to sell arts or crafts in a way to falsely suggest they’re made by American Indians when they’re not.

The tribe has about 10 registered trademarks on the Navajo name that cover clothing, footwear, online retail sales, household products and textiles. Tribal justice officials said they’re intent on protecting what they believe are among the tribe’s most valuable assets.

“The fame or reputation of the Navajo name and marks is such that, when defendant uses the ‘Navajo’ and ‘Navaho’ marks with its goods and services, a connection with the Navajo Nation is falsely presumed,” the lawsuit states.

Urban Outfitters set off a firestorm of criticism last year with its line of Navajo-branded clothing and accessories — particularly underwear and a liquor flask, which the tribe said was “derogatory and scandalous,” considering the sale and consumption of alcohol is banned on the reservation that spans parts of northeast Arizona, southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico. The company removed the product names from its website after acknowledging receipt of the cease and desist letter.

But the Navajo Nation wrote in its lawsuit that products with the Navajo name still are sold through other company brands, like Free People, in catalogs and retail stores.

The clothing boutique’s website features several pieces of jewelry labeled vintage Navajo with turquoise stones and silver. A description for a handmade cuff says it originally was sold at a trading post, and has etched arrow detailing with a “sterling” stamp on the back.

There was no sign of the word “Navajo” on any products at an Urban Outfitters in downtown Tempe late last week.

The Philadelphia-based company did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Company spokesman Ed Looram said in an email last October that Urban Outfitters had no plans to alter its products.

“Like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come,” he said. “The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term ‘Navajo’ have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years.”

I find it not only laughable, but downright offensive that any corporation has no problem with hijacking and exploiting the cultural norms, arts, music, etc. of marginalized bodies for their profit. Never mind that the cultural signifiers for these groups of people have significant meaning to their people and traditions. Never mind that those participating in cultural appropriation could care less about the message behind the symbols, clothing, language, music and art. Never mind that the corporation that’s all too ready to market its cultural appropriation to the masses could give a damn about the message its appropriation it sends to those marginalized bodies.

While cultural appropriation by whiteness and companies that protects its interests is nothing new, each time it happens serves as a painful reminder of how marginalized folks continue to fight othering by whiteness on the one hand, but also have to face whiteness’s exploitation of their differences in the name of turning a profit.

Urban Outfitters and companies like it should be keenly aware that cultural appropriation for profitable gain not only is offensive and demonstrates a lack of concern about the cultural autonomy of marginalized groups, it also is a yet another example of how whiteness continues to other marginalized bodies for its societal–and monetary–gain.