MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Navajo Nation is one of this country's largest Native American tribes, so you might not be surprised to know that many people associate the word Navajo with a distinctive aesthetic associated with the Southwest. But how far is too far when it comes to appropriating that aesthetic? That is the question at the heart of a lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation against Urban Outfitters. That's a clothing company with stores in 35 states.
That company had come out with a line of products all labeled Navajo. Many people have objected to that. Not just Native Americans, but others.
We wanted to learn more about this, so we've called upon Bill Donovan. He's a contributor to the Navajo Times. He's been covering the Navajo Nation for more than 30 years and has reported on this.
Bill, thanks so much for joining us.
BILL DONOVAN: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, the controversy started with a letter to Urban Outfitters written by Sasha Houston Brown, who is a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, but she said she saw these products at Urban Outfitters and was offended. Tell us more.
DONOVAN: Well, what happened was - they've been selling these products for about a year now and on Columbus Day she put her letter online and her letter went viral. Everybody saw it and at that point it became a public controversy. And it got a lot of coverage because she said that she was embarrassed by some of the products that the company was selling with the Navajo name on it, products like Navajo Hipster Panties and a Navajo Liquor Flask.
And she said this was really insensitive to the Navajo people and she wanted it stopped.
MARTIN: So she had been trying to draw attention to this for a while and apparently it got online.
DONOVAN: The smart thing she did was she put it online on Columbus Day and a lot of newspapers were looking for some kind of story to go along with Columbus Day and that worked perfectly.
MARTIN: Did Urban Outfitters ever respond to her or to you or to the people who were covering this? And what did they say?
DONOVAN: I called Urban Outfitters and I talked to their attorney, who admitted that they were doing it, but they said they weren't doing anything wrong. They had a right to use that name and they were not insensitive to the Navajo Nation.
At that point they said the Navajo Nation had taken no action against them, but we learned later that there had been a letter (unintelligible) from the tribe to cease and desist and they just refused to go along with it.
MARTIN: So there are two issues here. One - they're saying what? That the Navajo - the word Navajo is in such common usage that nobody can kind of claim to be in charge of it, and then they're saying secondly - so what. You know - so what. Is that pretty much the point?
DONOVAN: Well, back in 1975 or '76, the Navajo Nation actually tried to copyright the word Navajo, but they were told that it was such a common name, they couldn't do it.
Now, what they did here was they went and sued them on the basis of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which says it's illegal to produce a product that says it's Indian made when it's not Indian made. So the Navajo Nation is saying that the products that the company is producing makes it appear that Navajos had some part in the production of these products and therefore that's against the law.
MARTIN: But this isn't the first time that the name has been used to sell a product not produced by Navajo people. For example, remember there was that - the Navajo SUV from Mazda? Is that viewed differently by the tribe?
DONOVAN: Very much so. That's about 15 years ago. Mazda came to the Navajo Nation and asked permission to use the word Navajo, and it promised that it would do so with dignity, and it gave one of the cars to the Navajo Nation to use in its government offices. And then there have been a couple of Navajo clothing lines, which also got endorsement from the Navajo tribe, so the Navajos have endorsed products.
MARTIN: Well, in fact, Sasha, in her letter - Sasha Houston Brown, in her letter, says that there's nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric-Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress, or the Navajo Hipster Panties. So I think part of the point that you're making here is it's some of the products themselves that many people found tacky and kind of insulting. Is that it?
DONOVAN: That's right. Tacky is a good word. The Navajo Nation has been very sensitive about people using their name to promote tacky products. I remember back in 1982 or 1983, Penthouse magazine wanted to come in on the reservation and do a pictorial using the Monument Valley area. The Navajo tribe went ballistic and said no, you can't do that. That's just too tacky and insensitive to us. You cannot come on the reservation and do that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about why the Navajo Nation is suing clothing chain Urban Outfitters. I'm joined by Bill Donovan. He's a contributor to the Navajo Times and he's been covering this story.
You've been covering this, as I said, for a while now. What do you think? As I understand it - that some of the products that Urban Outfitters was producing have been removed from their website, but are they still selling them elsewhere?
DONOVAN: They're still selling them through their subsidiaries. The products are still being sold by Urban Outfitters, but they have different names on them now. They've taken the word Navajo off of them, but they still use Navajo designs, and the tribe can't do anything about that. They have not copyrighted the designs.
But, again, if they're using Navajo designs and it gives the impression that these were made by Navajos, that's against the law.
MARTIN: What about the argument, though, that culture is essentially owned by everybody these days? I mean it used to be that, like, the big fashion designers would not allow their designs to be photographed, you know, in advance of a show so that they could be the first people to present them, and that now people just sort of accept it. You know, everybody copies everybody. What do people say about that? What do tribal leaders say about that?
DONOVAN: Well, for the past 25 years the Navajo Nation has passed a number of laws trying to protect this culture from non-Navajos. Now if you want to do a study on Navajos, you have to get the Navajo tribe's permission. If you are a commercial operation, you want to go on the reservation to take pictures, you've got to get the tribe's permission. And they're very careful about who they let do that, so the tribe is taking over more and more control over its culture and over its image.
MARTIN: But what about the idea, more broadly, that you can't really own culture any more, like dance steps or something like that, that nobody really owns that? What about that idea?
DONOVAN: For the most part, the Navajo Nation does not mind the use of its culture if it's done in a sensitive way.
MARTIN: Bill Donovan is a contributor to the Navajo Times. He's been covering the Navajo Nation for more than 30 years. He's been writing about this controversy involving Urban Outfitters and he was kind enough to join us from Gallup, New Mexico.
Bill Donovan, thank you so much for joining us.
DONOVAN: And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.