Buying the Clothes Off Native Americans’ Backs

| 12/13/2011 5:07:43 PM

Pendleton blanket 

Urban Outfitters pantyWouldn’t you be offended if your cultural heritage was immortalized in underwear? This fall, the Navajo Nation sent retailer Urban Outfitters a cease and desist letter, forcing them to rename more than 20 products the tribe found objectionable, including the “Navajo Hipster Panty” and “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask,” reports Lisa Hix in Collectors Weekly.

The Navajo Nation holds trademarks for the name “Navajo,” preventing it being used to sell things like mass-produced hoodies and knee socks. And, the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 makes it illegal to falsely market a product as Native American–made. Even so, more and more Native American–inspired fashions are gracing metropolitan runways and glossy magazine pages. From hipster cardigans to luxe handbags to leather bracelets, designs cribbed from America’s indigenous people are making the rounds.

Hix spoke with Jessica R. Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa and professor at Arizona State University who blogs at Beyond Buckskin about non–Native Americans producing “native” fashions:

The problem is that they’re putting it out there as “This is the native,” or “This is native-inspired.” So now you have non-native people representing us in mainstream culture. That, of course, gets tiring, because this has been happening since the good old days of the Hollywood Western in the 1930s and ’40s, where they hired non-native actors and dressed them up essentially in redface. The issue now is not only who gets to represent Native Americans, but also who gets to profit.

For some, the biggest offender is Pendleton Woolen Mill, a company founded on producing Indian trade blankets and robes in 1863 and who is famously pro–Native American. Recently the company expanded to produce high-end coats, bags, and other products. While the designs used on Pendleton products are original to the company and not traditional tribal motifs, the fact that they are profiting from sales of $500 sweaters featuring native-inspired designs can feel like a betrayal.

“Seeing hipsters march down the street in Pendleton clothes, seeing these bloggers ooh and ahh over how ‘cute’ these designs are, and seeing non-Native models all wrapped up in Pendleton blankets makes me upset,” Cherokee writer and Ph.D. candidate Adrienne K., who blogs at Native Appropriations, tells Hix.

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