Native Issues in the Halls of Government


In October, on the federal Columbus Day holiday, Sasha Houston Brown (Santee Dakota) wrote a letter to the CEO of Urban Outfitters Inc., the apparel chain that has an Uptown store. She visited the shop and noted the "cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive retail collection."

"Indian-look" items seem to come and go in the fashion world; but Brown’s letter to Glenn T. Senk decried what she saw as "blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation" in the store’s items branded as "Navajo."

She wrote: "There is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace… 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."

Brown’s letter was posted Oct. 10 on the Racialicious blog ("about the intersection of race and pop culture"). The letter to Senk – which also suggested that Urban Outfitters was in violation of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990, and could be fined a million dollars – piqued the interest of the mainstream press. The story soon made its way to the Star Tribune, ABC News, MSNBC, and The Daily Mail in London.

The British newspaper mentioned that Urban Outfitters had 21 different products described as "Navajo" on it Web site. Ed Looram, Urban Outfitters’ director of public relations, told MailOnline that the company, like "many other fashion brands," interprets trends, "and will continue to do so for years to come. The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term ‘Navajo’ have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years."

Although Brown, 24, who works as a counselor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, wrote that the Navajo Nation’s attorney general had sent a cease and desist letter to Urban Outfitters, to stop selling the "Navajo"-branded items, Looram told The Daily Mail that the company had not been contacted by the Navajos.

Skipping ahead in this tawdry tale of exploitation, on Oct. 20, ABC News reported that Urban Outfitters had decided to remove the word "Navajo" from the various products it was selling. The products are still listed in the online catalog; but the Navajo Hipster Panty, for example, is now being sold as the Printed Hipster Panty.

For her part, Brown told ABC News that she was pleased to have sparked a national dialogue with her letter. "It recognizes the Navajo nation as a sovereign entity that is protected by federal legislation and law. And, I think by them removing [the Navajo name], it does show also that it’s a serious issue that is much more than offensive."

Brown also said that she never received a response from Urban Outfitters; but she regarded the company’s decision as a "victory."

Congratulations to Sasha. Urban Outfitters obviously changed course to stem the tide of adverse publicity. And there was the threat of litigation by the Navajo Nation.

This story reminded me of Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, which was produced in the early ’90s, by an outfit in New York called Hornell Brewing Co. I wrote stories for The Circle and other periodicals about the brewski that desecrated the memory of the revered Oglala Lakota leader, who opposed alcohol use by his people and foresaw the social devastation it would cause.

The administrator of the Tashunka Witko (Crazy Horse) estate sued the brewer to stop exploitation of the Oglala warrior’s name. And in 1994, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill to ban the sale of any malt liquor brand that "states or implies in a false or misleading manner a connection with an actual living or dead American Indian leader."

In the sports world, where Indian mascots and names are still popular, at least on the professional level, the University of North Dakota, which has been in conflict for several years with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), will finally retire the Fighting Sioux name and logo. However, the malefactors who own the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, etc., have resisted protests going back decades.

Often the response to calls for change has been that Indians are being "honored" through the use of these mascots and names, which usually propound a monolithic American Indian identity from the 19th century. However, what some deride as "political correctness" is really a sense of decency in this case; the use of Indian mascots and names is demeaning, a relic of the bad old days.