Cultural Appropriation Native American Edition

STORY BY Emily Kirkpatrick

Published: September 4, 2013

A number of big name fast fashion companies have come under fire in recent years for producing products that utilize racially insensitive Native American stereotypes.

As The Guardian pointed out in an article a few weeks ago, despite the 565 historically, culturally and linguistically distinct tribes of Native Americans recognized in the United States, their culture as a whole tends to be broken down into the most simplistic, offensively inaccurate, terms. In other words, a culture based around headdresses, face paint, rain dances and fringe.

In 2012, Urban Outfitters produces an entire range of clothing and accessories termed the “Navajo” range, despite zero involvement from the Navajo community. The collection utilized a fake Native American tribal print, which covered everything from hip flasks to underwear. In a cease and desist letter from the Navajo Nation,  they pointed out their specific objection to these two objects as they are in direct conflict with their spiritual beliefs about modesty and their reservation-wide ban on alcohol. Not to mention, marketing inauthentic products using specific Native American tribal names is explicitly outlawed under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, although that seems to have stopped absolutely no one in the fashion industry. Urban Outfitters agreed to remove the word Navajo from their collection, however, they continued to sell the offensive products in question both in stores and online. In fact, they refused to apologize despite being sued by the Navajo Nation and have failed to participate in the court-ordered mediation, which will result in a court case scheduled for 2015. This kind of rampant cultural insensitivity seems to be common corporate practice at the Urban Outfitters headquarters, considering over the years they have also been accused of racist and offensive designs by representatives of the Jewish, Irish, Latino, Black and Chinese communities.

Paul Frank

In September 2012, Paul Frank caused similar offense when it threw a party with a “neon Native American pow-wow” theme. Thousands of photographs were posted online documenting party-goers with glow-in-the-dark face paint and feathered headbands, wielding bow and arrow and tomahawk party favors, and drinking themed cocktails such as the “rain dance refresher.” The party was also held in celebration of the launch of a line of t-shirts that used a fake Native American tribal print along with images of the Paul Frank monkey mascot in feathered headdress.

Unlike Urban Outfitters, Paul Frank Industries took a very different tact and immediately issued an apology and removed all Native American inspired designs and artwork from their website and stores. The company invited Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations and Jessica Metcalfe of Beyond Buckskin to lead an industry panel aimed at educating manufacturers about the use of Native American imagery in fashion. Paul Frank also sought out authentic Native American artists to collaborate with on a respectful and authentic line of products. The president of Paul Frank Industries, Elie Dekel, described the collaboration as not only a ways for their company to make amends, but also “help raise awareness about cultural misappropriations, which unfortunately happen too often in product, promotion and fashion.”

The Paul Frank companies efforts, although transparently an attempt to pay dues for their own misdeeds, seems genuine and is at least more than most companies are willing to do in the face of charges of racial insensitivity. The appropriation and abuse of culture is a problem that every minority group faces equally and until major corporations are held accountable for their insensitive, wildly politically incorrect behavior, fashion will continue its exploitive, destructive behavior in favor of making a quick buck.



Other Stories by Emily Kirkpatrick
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