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Navajo Nation sues Urban Outfitters for alleged trademark infringement
Urban Outfitters specializes in bohemian fashion, but their appropriation of Native American designs has resulted in a lawsuit.
March 2nd, 2012
04:57 PM ET

Navajo Nation sues Urban Outfitters for alleged trademark infringement

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

 (CNN) – The Navajo Nation is suing hipster clothing and accessories retailer Urban Outfitters for using the Navajo name and motifs in their products without permission – a practice that they say takes away millions of dollars from the tribe and its members.

The lawsuit alleges that Urban Outfitters' use of the name "Navajo" in its products "deceives and confuses consumers" and "is designed to convey to consumers a false association or affiliation with the Navajo Nation, and to unfairly trade off the fame, reputation, and goodwill of the Navajo Nation’s name and trademarks."

One of the laws under which the tribe is seeking redress is the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a federal law that makes it illegal for non-Indian businesses to misrepresent a product as being made by a Native American tribe or person.

"When Congress amended the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, it did so after studies showed that 'fake' Indian products were siphoning millions from the market for products created by citizens of federally recognized tribes," said Kristen Carpenter, a professor of law at the University of Colorado who specializes in Native American property rights.

According to a June 2005 report by the Department of the Interior, which houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, estimated that indigenous artisans lose $400 million to $500 million a year to sales of counterfeit products.

"For some of our Navajo or native artisans, that's what sells their products. Attaching the name Navajo to their item generates income," said Erny Zah, director of communications for the Navajo Nation's Office of the President. "To the larger world, we are Navajo, and we take pride in being Navajo… We don’t want our name to be associated with anything that isn’t Navajo."

The suit, filed Tuesday, in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, lists a number of products it says are a problem– including silver jewelry, backpacks, shirts, tote bags and underwear. But it calls out Urban Outfitters' marketing of a flask as "Navajo Flask" as especially "derogatory and scandalous," because the Navajo Nation expressly forbids its name to be used in connection with products related to alcohol and bans the sale, manufacture and consumption of alcohol within its borders. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, American Indians and Alaska Native adults have higher-than-average rates of binge drinking. And according to data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, Native Americans are five times more likely than whites to die of alcohol-related causes.

A cease-and-desist order filed last fall resulted in Urban Outfitters removing Navajo references in descriptions of some items, but in-store displays in some shops selling its products as well as the online store for the Free People brand continued to label or reference "Navajo" or "Navaho" in describing some items.

"The use of Indian names and imagery without consent of the relevant Indian nation diminishes both critical opportunities for economic development and, as importantly, for tribes to represent themselves consistent with cultural norms and traditions, both ancient and contemporary," said Carpenter. "The Urban Outfitters case is particularly unfortunate in light of the beautiful and high-quality goods produced by Navajo artisans, readily available for purchase by consumers seeking real Navajo products."

The Navajo Nation is asking for monetary damages, a share of the profits made on falsely branded products and an injunction that would forbid Urban Outfitters or any of its subsidiaries from using the name "Navajo" in its products or marketing materials.

 Urban Outfitters did not respond to calls seeking comment.

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soundoff (334 Responses)
  1. Justin

    1. What is your opinion of the action taken by Najavo Nation?
    2. Do you think that Navajo Nation is making a "big deal" out of nothing?
    3. Is this an example of stereotyping?
    4. Name at least one fact that you did not know but learned as you read this article.

    October 4, 2012 at 3:40 am | Report abuse |
  2. rdm

    sorry, meant to say "navajo" , no insult intended. :(

    September 26, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. rdm

    I guess the next time I go into Home Depot and order a gallon of "Navaho white" paint I can expect a lawsuite from the tribe.

    September 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    Urban Outfitters is not claiming that their products are 'authentic'. The term 'Navajo' appears to be used to describe the pattern that was printed on the various shirts, bags, flasks, etc. If Urban Outfitters were claiming to sell counterfeit Navajo merchandise as 'authentic' then the Navajo Nation might have some grounds but this is just frivolous. Last time I checked I didn't see any Navajo-Nation officially licensed apparel.

    March 7, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex.

      It is illegal to market an art or craft item using the name of a tribe if a member, or certified Indian artisan, of that tribe did not actually create the art or craft item.

      LAST TIME I CHECKED....

      March 8, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Me

    Go Navajos!!! because im navajo and dont drink, pay taxes, love my tradition, love the name navajo, i am a descendant of the first americans, and what else do i need to add. lol

    March 6, 2012 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Don

      I'll buy you a beer.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
  6. Sam

    Cultural misrepresentations of Indians isn't just careless, it can be dangerous.

    Until people start learning about recent American Indian history, Indians will always be viewed through the lens of their colorful costumes and spiritual beliefs. The re-packaging and mixing together of unrelated native beliefs into new age self help books and expensive alternative healing regimens leads to people making bizarre and dangerous health choices including crack-pot sweat lodge ceremonies, one of which killed a bunch of people a few years ago in Sedona, AZ.

    March 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dduke

      Fire water hey chief running penis????

      March 5, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  7. OregonTom

    This will make for a very dry but interesting ( to me) copyright infringement trial.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  8. Carmen

    All designers at one time or another have copied Bolivian head gear, textiles, handbags, etc. I laugh when I see the exact item sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars, and I get the exat same one in Bolivia for less than a 100.
    And mine is hand made in the real place and not in China,
    I just got a handbag that sell for over 3.000 from a designer and mine cost me 200.

    March 5, 2012 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
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