Buying the Clothes Off Native Americans’ Backs

1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

Wouldn’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.

It’s a complicated feeling, because I feel ownership over these designs as a Native person, but on a rational level I realize that they aren’t necessarily ours to claim. To me, it just feels like one more thing non-Natives can take from us–like our land, our moccasins, our headdresses, our beading, our religions, our names, our cultures weren’t enough? You gotta go and take Pendleton designs, too?

Read the full article “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans” online and see more striking examples of Native Americans’ fashion influence, past and present.

Source: Collectors Weekly

Images: Detail from Pendleton nine-element robe, first introduced as an Indian trade blanket in the 1920s, from Language of the Robe by Rain Parrish (top); Urban Outfitters “Navajo Hipster Panty” (middle); Pendleton Toboggan fashion shot (bottom).

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.