The misappropriation of Native American imagery, iconography, cultural ideology, and fashion is nothing new. After all, a slew of professional sports teams continue to run with Indian names and logos in spite of the controversy in doing so. A few sports teams, like the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball franchise, boast insidious "tomahawk" chants during their games.
The latest trend in Native misappropriation is not much more tasteful than a Cleveland Indians jersey in the fashion world. Several manifestations of the disturbing trend have emerged in consumer culture. One is that commercial manufacturers Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters have been selling lines of clothing and jewelry that is culturally insensitive as well as illegal. A second trend, exposed by bloggers around the Internet, is the lewd use of Native-style feathered headdresses. These recent trends are highly disturbing in that consumers by now ought to know better. Especially hipsters, a subculture that prides itself on thoughtful irony, should be aware of the ramifications of misappropriation.
Wearing feathers, tassels, and moccasins has been in and out of style for decades. As Nittle puts it, "for decades, footwear, jewelry, purses and clothing with Native American influences have surfaced as fashion staples, cycling in and out of designer collections in any given year." Hippies in the 60s popularized Native American fashions, for example. However, a more recent hipster trend has involved the thoughtless use of Native American imagery and fashion. Hippies sometimes appropriated Native American spirituality into a New Age religious hodge-podge. The hipster trend is similar but far more sinister in that it is fully materialistic. As such, the hipster trend demeans the core of what it means to be indigenous.
The Urban Outfitters infractions include the use of Navajo-esque geometric patterns on not just underwear but liquor flasks. A liquor flask has deep cultural connotations to cultures that were subjugated partly by the strategy of promoting or at least enabling alcoholism. Navajo sensitivity to the Urban Outfitters flask is understandable, given how blatend the infraction was.
As if to outdo Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 marketed their ugly line of Native-ish clothing on the most ironic day possible: Columbus Day. At least Thanksgiving misappropriates Native American imagery by paying tribute to harvest festivals. Forever 21 was paying tribute to the legacy of genocide that Christopher Columbus kick-started, by cheapening the remaining cultural artifacts of native tribes. As Kane claims, "This neon abomination is also marked down as a way of celebrating the Spanish explorer and colonizer who is most (accurately or not) famous for inciting the genocide of an entire people, the same people who just happen to have inspired this & #8230;'look.'" Kane also calls the Forever 21 Columbus Day sale being "hit in the face with a big, fatty irony stick." Another irony with the Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters fail is that in both cases the items dubbed as Native American were actually manufactured in some foreign sweatshop ("Urban Outfitter's 'Navajo' Problem Becomes A Legal Issue).
Irony is not the only effect of the recent cultural appropriations. Nittle notes, "some of the Native apparel commodified don't just have cultural significance but also spiritual significance in Native American communities." Marketing some items, headdresses in particular, out of context dehumanizes, demeans, and belittles. Wade weighs in: "All of these cases romanticize Indianness, blur separate traditions (as well as the real and the fake), and some disregard Indian spirituality. They all happily forget that, before white America decided that American Indians were cool, some whites did their absolute best to kill and sequester them. And the U.S. government is still involved in oppressing these groups today." In fact, the average American consumer is actively participating in the oppression of Native groups by ignoring the painful ironies beneath the recent misappropriations. Nittle notes, "If you enjoy indigenous fashions, consider buying them directly from First Nations designers and artisans throughout North America." There are several such vendors, strewn about the nation as well as the Internet. For example, Native Threads is a Native company selling genuine Native goods. There are many other Native-owned businesses and companies that work with Native communities. Purchasing goods that are genuinely Native, crafted by hand with care, is a far cry from buying an Urban Outfitters "Navajo flask."
In a streak of poetic justice, Urban Outfitters had to remove the Navajo designator from its clothing line. When it found out of the infraction, the Navajo Nation was quick to respond with a cease-and-desist order. Within days, the Urban Outfitter Website changed the names of its products and removed the Navajo moniker. The Navajo Nation is among the most powerful in the nation, and has had the foresight to take out patents to protect the term "Navajo" from being misused. The Navajo Nation "holds at least 10 trademarks on the name that cover clothing, footwear, online retail sales, household products and textiles," ("Navajo Nation Fights Urban Outfitters Over 'Disrespectful' Clothing Line,"). One site claims as many as twelve trademarks "including two that cover various forms of clothing and one that covers online retailing," ("Urban Outfitter's 'Navajo' Problem Becomes A Legal Issue"). Trademarking is one of the best ways to at least protect a tribal name from being misused.
Not all tribes are as well endowed as the Navajo, but all support the injunction. Most tribes are left voiceless and without the political, financial, or legal clout to retake control over their names and imagery. For example, a pair of moccasins can be called Cherokee, like the Jeep. One blogger takes issue with war bonnets in particular because of the ceremonial context in which they should remain. "My specific bitch is about white hipsters using traditional (or what appears to be traditional) Lakota Sioux war bonnets as fashion statements, and some even bemoaning that they aren't Native American." ("Native American culture shouldn't be appropriated for fashion."). The blogger points out that war bonnets are "sacred to many tribes," and were never worn frivolously as in hipster fashion. The Sioux, Crow, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, and Cree are among the tribes affected by the hipster war bonnet trend ("Native American culture shouldn't be appropriated for fashion."). Culturally insensitive musicians and hipsters have recently misappropriated war bonnets.
Whereas the Navajo can sue over trademark violations, other tribes can call upon the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. The Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, as well as the Federal Trade Commission Act, expressly and unequivocally forbid false claims -- even implications -- that a product is Native American-made when it is not," ("Urban Outfitter's 'Navajo' Problem Becomes A Legal Issue"). Unfortunately, this would not protect headdresses that do not bear a specific tribal designation. Without the tribal designation, a product is simply a rip off. There is no intellectual property protection for leather fringes, medicine bags, dream catchers, feather earrings, or any other Native-seeming fashion. Therefore, little legal action can be taken when a clothing manufacturer makes items that appropriate Native imagery without actually calling it such outright.
The strategies that are being used by most tribes is to rely heavily on social media and social networking to raise awareness of the issue. The blogosphere is replete with entries on the cultural misappropriation theme. In fact, the Urban Outfitters situation created a huge stir, not just among the Navajo but also among other tribes that joined together in the movement out of solidarity. For example, "Sasha Houston Brown of the Santee Sioux Nation posted a letter online to the company saying it 'has taken Indigenous life ways and artistic expressions and trivialized and sexualized them for the sake of corporate profit.'" ("Navajo Nation Fights Urban Outfitters Over 'Disrespectful' Clothing Line,").
Because Native Americans have been hit hard by misappropriation, it is only sensible that this recent scourge should garner media attention. Public relations is the best way to make Native misappropriations powerfully uncool. Usually, blog comments following the posts related to misappropriation are positive and supportive of the Native community. Occasionally an insensitive post appears that criticizes the Native community for being overly sensitive. Yet it is rare that a critic will be Native; most of the people claiming insensitivity miss the irony in the fact that they are speaking from a position of white privilege.
As Wade claims, "it's not cute to wear a feather in your hair or carry an Indian rug clutch, it's thoughtless and insensitive." Kane also comments on imagery depicting Native Americans "in the most stereotypical form possible." For instance, one Forever 21 piece is a necklace depicting a Native man in a headdress. The necklace might as well chant native songs.
Another way to target the problem at the source is to use the tactics that are already embedded in the white hegemony. In other words, play the game. The Navajo are playing the game and have been doing a great job. By using the laws of the dominant culture to usurp the dominant culture's stranglehold, the Navajo are unique. The Navajo are also forging ties with…