Recently I visited an Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis. The store was filled with derogatory and inauthentic Native themed goods. Plastic dream catchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of synthetic feather jewelry and hyper-sexualized clothing with suede, fringe and fake tribal patterns.
In that moment, surrounded by items like the Navajo Hipster Panty, the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask and Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, I felt humiliated. This line of faux-Indian goods seemed to epitomize the relationship that American society has with Native people.
We are seldom brought into the mainstream public sphere except on occasions like Thanksgiving and Halloween, when children can still dress up as Indians. Our history, our vast contributions to the world and our cultural resiliency are frequently trivialized or hidden.
Being a biracial Native American woman, I have struggled my entire life to respond constructively to racism and ignorance. For the most part I have been dismissed as overly sensitive and easily offended. Sports teams and ignorant individuals try to disguise racism as cultural appreciation. But there is nothing appreciative about appropriating and making a mockery of our identity and cultures.
On Columbus Day I wrote an open letter to the CEO of Urban Outfitters to let him know how I felt. I also pointed out that using Native American tribal names to market inauthentic products violates federal law that protects tribes from corporate encroachment and misrepresentation. As far as I can learn, Urban Outfitters never contacted the Navajo Nation about using its name, which happens to be protected by 12 trademarks.
To be clear, I don't mind individuals being inspired by Native American art and style or wearing Native jewelry. But Native people have a right to make their own decisions, and Native businesses should benefit from the sale of Native goods.
Corporations shouldn't rip off our art, produce it cheaply overseas and make a profit on our culture. Minneapolis is home to one of the largest urban Indian communities in the nation. There is no shortage of Native artists.
And none of them would be so clueless as to produce the Navajo Hipster Panty.
Sasha Houston Brown is a graduate of Carleton College and an American Indian academic adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
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