Faux Navajo: Tribe Takes On Hipster Clothing Chain

Tribe Takes On Hipster Clothing Chain

Marisa Demarco
6 min read
Faux Navajo
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Art is not a hobby, says Shane Hendren. Navajo families have generations of art-makers, he says. "They are the bearers of our culture."

That’s part of the reason the organization he belongs to, the
Indian Arts and Crafts Association, has fought since 1974 to curtail fraudulent Native American artwork. "Since that hasn’t subsided, it’s still a necessary entity."

Hendren, an artist and metalsmith, has been president of the organization in the past, and today he sits on its board of directors.

The group pushed for
tougher laws in New Mexico, making it a fourth degree felony to sell fraudulent art for $500 or more. It also worked to add teeth to national laws so that agencies other than the FBI could investigate complaints about faux-Native works.

It’s an uphill battle because some politicians view the issue as trivial, Hendren says, when compared with land concerns, health care and education. But Hendren describes the problem as an economic one, especially when big corporations are stealing ideas, reproducing work overseas and then shipping it back to the U.S. to be sold on the cheap. That puts local folks out of business. He adds that knockoffs cast a shadow on the state’s tourism industry.

Hendren was glad to hear the Navajo Nation filed suit in New Mexico in late February against Urban Outfitters for using the tribe’s name to peddle panties, flasks, earrings and more. The tribe sent a cease and desist letter to the hipster clothing chain in June. The company renamed the items on its website. But it continued to use the word "Navajo" on products sold through its other brands, such as Free People and Anthropologie, according to the lawsuit.

The Navajo Nation maintains a trademark on its name so it can’t be used to mislead people purchasing clothes, shoes, textiles and other items.

Alibi was unable to get ahold of Urban Outfitters. The chain has generally not been commenting on the lawsuit since it was filed. We did, however, get a chance to speak with Hendren about Native trends popping up periodically in mainstream culture and the long history of rip-off art.

Every so often, fashion gets interested in Native American prints and styles. Is there a way for the industry to do it right?

Everything’s cyclical. It doesn’t hurt us per se. The more awareness there is out there, the more opportunity there is for everyone. The problem I have initially with Urban Outfitters is the fact that there are hundreds if not thousands of Native American designers that are willing and ready to work with any company today. They just arbitrarily bypassed that opportunity.

There are so many Native American artists, it would make sense to work with us, wouldn’t it? It’s almost like if BF Goodrich said, Let’s get into the dress business, and we’re going to have our tire guys make dresses.

Why does this kind of thing matter?

There’s always the economic aspect of it. All the reservations in New Mexico could be categorized as third-world countries within the United States. The Navajo Nation, we still have a huge population of people who have no running water, no electricity.

The production of art is still one of the primary means by which people sustain themselves and provide for their families. So there’s that basic "putting food on the table" element that is related to art.

The other side of that is the fact that we, until recent times, haven’t recorded our history in written form. Our history has always been passed via oral tradition, as well as most often through our art forms. Everything that’s produced has some meaning behind it. All the designs are representative of something and for that reason have importance to us culturally and spiritually and as a means of maintaining our identity.

What was your reaction when you heard about the lawsuit?

It seemed like low-hanging fruit, and I’m glad they’re pursuing it. As much as I think our country is way too sue-happy, this is the only way to get the message across to these corporations that they can’t go and make money by appropriating people’s identity and culture for profit.

Do many tribes have copyrights on their names?

No, but I think that’s something you’re going to see more of. That’s a new phenomenon. The Navajo Nation is one of the first tribes—and the Cherokees—to do that. Prior to that, companies were slapping Indian names on anything and everything as a sales gimmick.

If a tribe hasn’t copyrighted its name, they should do it. At the end of the day, they have to think of the generations to come, their responsibilities to them and whether they’re protecting their interests.

What are some of the worst examples Native art rip-offs?

Ralph Lauren was the most successful when he had his whole campaign in the late ’80s and early ’90s with all the turquoise and silver and everything. He really made it pay.

One of my fellow board members, Cliff Fragua, who’s a Jemez sculptor, he had seen some of his sculptures were being mass-produced and sold at Hobby Lobby. You could tell they had gotten the idea from Cliff’s work. It happens so often, and it’s so blatant.

Large corporations have no fear of us because they have deeper pockets. Most artists can’t afford to wage a legal campaign against them. The attitude of big companies is, We dare you to stop us.

Most artists, Native and non-Native alike, don’t have the wherewithal to go against corporations. Most Natives don’t have the desire. We’re not programmed to create disharmony in our lives and unnecessary conflict.

Is fraudulent art fairly widespread?

Oh yeah. And it’s not just with Native Americans. American craftspeople in general deal with it in on a day-to-day basis.

The reality is, it doesn’t matter what type of art you’re making, the global cost for your materials is pretty much the same across the board. We’re all going to pay whatever silver costs today—$34 or $36 an ounce. The only way people can increase profit margins is by employing cheaper labor.

So the guys and gals that choose to steal our designs and reproduce them take them to countries where their manpower costs less. If that involves using child labor or other less than desirable means of production, they’re more than willing to do that.

That’s what a lot of people don’t understand or correlate when they go to buy Indian art and they expect it to be cheap and want it to be cheap. When you don’t support the American-made product, then you’re contributing to these other atrocities around the globe. It’s a double-edged sword when you willingly participate in that.
Faux Navajo

Shane Hendren, Indian Arts and Crafts Association board member

Faux Navajo

Urban Outfitters “Navajo print fabric wrapped flask”

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