Urban Outfitters homogenizes native culture

// Evelyn Cranston

Feathers in hair, wolves on sweatshirts, moccasins on feet: Halloween has passed, and the “poca-hotties” have shed the costumes that depict centuries of abuse, but cultural appropriation of indigenous peoples’ artefacts continues feverishly.

Urban Outfitters (UO) has recently come under fire for their inappropriate marketing of “Navajo” products. The Navajo Nation is the largest federally recognized tribal nation in the United States, with an enrolled membership of 300,000, as of a 2011 census. Their traditional art includes silverwork, turquoise jewellery, and patterned weaving. The patterns used for blankets and rugs are woven with respect to cultural traditions and values, expressing colourful, intricate symmetry to embody the spirit of beauty and harmony. These prints burst with symbolic geometry, and have a history intrinsically linked with the culture of the nation.

Selling over 50 items categorized as Navajo at UO, including “Navajo Hipster Panties”, rips the culture out of the hands of the owners and markets rip-offs to white, rich urbanites. As Adrienne K., author of the blog Native Appropriations reminds us, “The Navajo Nation is a vibrant, real, awesome community doing great things. They're not some abstract mythical tribe out in the desert.” Not only is UO’s marketing tactic a glaring and offensive example of normalized cultural appropriation, it’s illegal.

According to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990,”[It is] illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization.”

The fake Navajo products from UO were made for profit, without involvement from the tribe itself. UO drew reams of criticism online, and the Navajo Nation Attorney General stated, “When an entity attempts to falsely associate its products with the Nation and its products, the Nation does not regard this as benign or trivial.” UO proceeded to scrub their website clean of the use of the word Navajo, and replaced products such as “Navajo Hipster Flask” with “Printed Hipster Flask”, though the product remained unchanged.

While the Navajo Nation Department of Justice found the website revamp to be “more consistent with the corporation's responsibilities than previously demonstrated," the deletion of the offensive words is a saving-face, band-aid solution to a pervasive social problem. The cultural appropriation of indigenous culture remains even after the legal issue is resolved.

The problem may even be intensified, as the products in question now turn into generic “Indian- ish” things, perpetuating the erasure of distinct tribal groups, creating a generic, homogeneous and stereotypical native culture. Adrienne K. states, “Americans are far too obsessed with their commodified and imagined images of ‘the Indian’ to be concerned with true authenticity.”

Anthropologie, UO’s older sister store, sells “Haida” ponchos. The garment is more of an undistinguishable mix of south-western tribal designs than authentic Haida art, and is once again, not produced by the Haida people. This enables UO to profit off the exploitation of another culture’s sacred symbols, exacerbating the cultural mutilation that First Nations have been subject to since colonization.

Dolly Reno, First Nations Liason with the Capilano Students' Union and member of the Mi’kmaq nation, states, “I think that any when any corporation takes a culture and its values or a symbol of how they identify themselves, as a marketing tool … it shows a lack of consideration and respect for that culture and its beliefs and identity. It sheds a little light on the direction that corporations are going in … I don’t think it shows that they have any respect for anyone except to make money, and that’s a really scary thing.”

“Playing Indian” or dressing up in cultural regalia is not harmless fun and fashion, and cannot be understood without context. It has a history rooted in white dominance, where the Boston Tea Party colonialists dressed in aboriginal drag to construct a new “American” identity that differentiated them from the British, and create a racial binary that justified exploitation. Donning pseudo-indigenous garb is reminiscent of a time where Manifest Destiny ruled, and reminds us that white privilege and dominance still pervades.

As Sasha Houston Brown, member of the Dakota Santee Sioux Nation, states, “It is this kind of behaviour that perpetuates the stereotype of the ‘white man’s Indian’ and allows for the ongoing commodification of an entire ethnic group. Just as our traditional homelands were stolen and expropriated without regard, so too has our very cultural identity.”

Wearing clothing or accessories that represent a tribe you don’t belong to is not inherently wrong, though ignoring that the items have a history, and come from a people whose culture has been denigrated, exploited, and oppressed for years is distasteful. Reno states, “There’s going to extremes, and there are certain things that shouldn’t just be used for fashion. But at the same time, I don’t want to cause a division where only I can enjoy my culture and other people can’t share in that experience. If you want to enjoy it, back it up. Where is it coming from? Do you know?”

It wouldn’t be justifiable to be offended if, for example, UO sold a French beret, or a Scottish Kilt, because the ethnic groups in question have not been marginalized to such a degree. It’s a double standard, but one not worth arguing. Everyone is so inextricably woven into history, lineage, and background, that no matter how uncomfortable ancestral skin feels, or how pervasive mainstream fashion trends are, we all have a duty to understand historical context and act with respect.

When living in a multicultural and capitalist society, a certain degree of cultural appropriation may be expected, as the structure of capitalism encourages commodification of everything possible. However, stealing distinctive aspects of ethnic groups that have been subject to the grandest theft and invisible genocide for profit further objectifies and marginalizes their people.

When choosing to participate in this trend, the best choice would be to purchase authentic goods from the people whose culture the item represents. Reno states, “If you do buy things that are coming from the people who make them, and it’s not coming from a factory, then I would assume that as a human being, you would be finding some appreciation and you’re learning something. You’re getting something, but you’re giving back.” Wear Aboriginal art and enjoy its beauty and symbolism, but purchase it from the artists themselves, and wear it with appreciation and understanding.

// Evelyn Cranston, Writer
// Illustration by Shannon Elliott

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