By Tabitha Phillips
The fashion world has profited from the allure of Native American culture for decades, but with the rise of new media it is easier for Native Americans to push back against the tide of inauthentic and tacky fashion trends.
While non-stereotypical depictions of Native Americans remain largely absent from media, clothing that appears to be Native-inspired has appeared in stores country-wide. Fashion lines that use Native-inspired patterns and stereotypical imagery such as feathers, dreamcatchers, and tomahawks have garnered much criticism in recent years. In early 2011, clothing store Urban Outfitters began using the Navajo name to market products such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask and the Navajo Hipster Panty.
Victoria LaPoe, a broadcast instructor at LSU and a member of the Native American Journalists Association Member, believes that the reason organizations stereotype Native Americans is that they are disconnected from the Native community.
The growing presence of a diverse, online Native American community is challenging that disconnect. In October of 2011 Urban Outfitters was called out for its illegal use of the trademarked name Navajo by various sites like Jezebel, Racialicious, Indian Country Today Media Network, and the Native Appropriations blog after a critical letter written by Sasha Houston Brown of the Santee Sioux Nation went viral. The company claimed that the Navajo Nation never contacted them, but failed to mention that the Navajo Nation sent them a cease and desist letter concerning the use of the Navajo name in June 2011. Urban Outfitters did not seem willing to speak directly with Brown, but company spokesman Ed Looram did release a statement to ABCNews.
“The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term ‘Navajo’ have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years,” said Looram. “We currently have no plans to modify or discontinue any of these products.” On October 19th, the Urban Outfitters online store removed the term Navajo from the products, but the products were still available for purchase under names like Printed Fabric Wrapped Flask and Printed Hipster Panty.
To avoid legal troubles and accusations of racism, many brands market their Native American-inspired fashion lines as “tribal” and ethnic”. A quick search for the term “tribal” on Forever 21’s website will reveal 121 results. The term tribal suggests that the patterns used in the clothing are representative of any Native American culture and ignore the intricacies of the Native tribes. “I just don’t think that there’s an understanding of that culture, so there’s a lot of assumptions made instead of a corporation going to actually get to know different tribes,” said LaPoe. “Every tribe is different. There’s 566 tribes and no tribe is alike.”
Athens has not been immune to the “tribal” craze. Pitaya, a chain of clothing boutiques with a location in Downtown Athens, promoted a Native-inspired collection which included a Dream-catcher dress and a Native-weave strapless dress. Downtown Athens also has a store called the Native American Gallery, which contains mostly jewelry and trinkets.
Summer Self, a manager at Native American Gallery, thinks that the Native American-inspired trend’s popularity has to do with the imagery of the culture. “It’s the patterns that they use,” she said. “For the more native-made stuff, it’s the materials that they use, but really in general fashion I think it’s really just the patterns and the colors and just how they go so well together.”
As for the consumers of these trends, Self said, “I just think they appreciate the culture and so that’s why they are drawn to the fashion.”
LaPoe is concerned with the appropriation of an entire culture into a clothing line. “A clothing line or organization will see one little nugget like a dream catcher or a buffalo or a tribal pattern and then they’ll market it and sell it because it’s what people who are non-native think of when it comes to those clothing lines,” she said.
LaPoe is optimistic that the internet will allow Native Americans to more strongly demand respect for their multifaceted culture.
“I think it’s picking up,” she said. “If something doesn’t seem right, like the Navajo flask, someone will say something about it within the sites and then everybody is all over it.”
LaPoe mentioned the use of Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter to connect with other Native Americans across the country. A petition on Change.org needed to receive only a little over 16,000 signatures before Urban Outfitters buckled under the pressure and removed the Navajo collection from the website. Urban Outfitters are still selling the products through other outlets and they are still selling online products like the Dakota Suede & Feather Necklace.
Urban Outfitters may have to pay for its unapologetic stance as they now face a lawsuit from the Navajo Nation, who own several trademarks of their name.
“I think that companies need to be more concerned about backlash,” said LaPoe. “Because with the bursting of native media online and with more access people are going to start speaking up.”