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Navajos Fight to Protect Their Brand

And, more to the point, what it represents.

By Erika Bsumek



Last week, Dylan McCabe, a Navajo high school senior in Maryland, created a petition to fight administrators’ refusal to allow her to wear Navajo moccasins to her graduation. Administrators, who initially claimed the shoes did not meet the school’s dress code, eventually relented, allowing McCabe to wear the shoes of her choice. Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is in danger of losing its suit against Urban Outfitters, which the tribe claims appropriated its name to the tune of upwards of $500 million worth of “Navajo” goods.

Navajos have been trying to control how they are represented in the public sphere since the early 1900s, when Navajo goods were widely sold and advertised in the United States.

The Navajo Nation has taken proactive steps to protect its public image and economic rights, namely by trademarking NAVAJO as early as 1943. Since then, it has fought the mislabeling of goods and the appropriation of the Navajo name in order to preserve its brand and to protect its people from unfair competition.

Companies such as Urban Outfitters use these names for a reason: They resonate with the American public.

While fundamentally different, the Urban Outfitters lawsuit and the McCabe petition represent the vast difficulties that Navajo people must grapple with to control when and how they and their culture is represented in public. In the Maryland case, school administrators initially failed to consider what moccasins mean to Navajo people: In the words of the Native American Rights Fund, to “own and wear a pair of Navajo or Diné moccasins shows that you have a deep respect for one’s self, kinship, earth, and all life.”

McCabe says her footwear represents her religion, strength, and endurance. While the school’s initial response (and a similar case in Oklahoma that preceded it) might appear to stand out as one small example of cultural misunderstanding, the impulse to dictate what Native Americans wear is neither new nor isolated.

Starting with Carlisle Indian Boarding School in 1879, traditional Native American articles of clothing were banned in U.S. government boarding schools. These schools launched Americanization campaigns that attempted to alter the dress, language, and behavior of American Indians. In response, members of indigenous communities across the U.S. waged a battle to sustain their culture through their material and spiritual traditions.

While indigenous peoples fought for the right to dress as they wished and speak their natal languages, American corporations appropriated representations of Native Americans by using tribal names such as Cherokee, Apache, and Navajo to brand their clothing, cars, helicopters, and weapons.

Companies such as Urban Outfitters use these names for a reason: They resonate with the American public. When Urban Outfitters created a Navajo line, they did so because the name was recognizable; it meant something to American consumers.

And not by chance. The Navajo Nation is the second largest Indian Nation in the U.S., and members of the tribe have been selling their hand-woven blankets and silver jewelry to American consumers since the late 1880s. But the word Navajo describes a people — not just the goods they make. The people of the Navajo Nation have worked to protect their culture for centuries. Trademarking their name is just one way they seek to protect their image.

When Urban Outfitters created a Navajo line, they did so because the name was recognizable; it meant something to American consumers.

That’s why the Navajo Nation launched a lawsuit in 2012 for trademark infringement and brand dilution.

Last month, Judge Bruce Black dismissed two counts in that case, declaring that the Navajo litigants “have not demonstrated that the ‘Navajo’ mark is anything other than a niche mark.” In other words, the court determined that the Navajo trademark is not famous enough to constitute protection as a brand. News outlets quickly declared a defeat for the Navajo Nation.

A few days later, Black issued an additional ruling allowing the Nation to sue for “no less than $1,000 for each day on which the offer or display for sale or sale of a given type of good continues.”

While that may be true, the court case is far from over. Black has also allowed four counts to proceed, including those involving the protections of the trademark guaranteed by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

It would be easy to think that it all started with a pair of socks, some funky underwear, and a drinking flask — but Urban Outfitters is doing something that non-Navajo merchants have done for over 100 years: capitalizing off of American associations with the “Navajo” without regard to what actual Navajo people want or believe, and without regard to the legal protections the Navajo Nation has won.

There is no doubt that Navajo-made goods are beautiful and finely crafted items but this case is not about goods made by Navajo artisans. It’s part of a longer history of elevating indigenous people though brand names that they have nothing to do with — while ignoring the actual people those brands represent. Meanwhile, people like McCabe have to fight for their culture to be recognized in public forums.