An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day
By Sasha Houston Brown
This past weekend, I had the unfortunate experience of visiting a local Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis. It appeared as though the recording “artist” Ke$ha had violently exploded in the store, leaving behind a cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive retail collection. Plastic dreamcatchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns.
In all seriousness, as a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as “fashion.”
All too often industries, sports teams and ignorant individuals legitimize racism under the guise of cultural “appreciation.” There is 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 T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures.
Your corporate website claims to “offer a lifestyle-specific shopping experience for the educated, urban-minded individual.” If this is the case, then clearly you have missed the mark on your target demographic. There is simply nothing educated about your collection, which on the contrary professes extreme ignorance and bigotry.
My primary concern with your company is the level on which you are engaging in cultural and religious appropriation. None of your products are actually made by Indigenous nations, nor were any Native peoples involved in the production or design process. On the contrary, you have created cheap knock-off trinkets made in factories overseas. Selling imported plastic and nylon dreamcatchers disrespects our history and undermines our sovereignty as Tribal Nations.
Did I mention that marketing inauthentic products using Native American tribal names is also illegal? The company’s actions violate the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990 and the Federal Trade Commission Act. According to the Department of the Interior:
“The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.”
I doubt that you consulted the Navajo Nation about using their tribal name on sophisticated items such as the “Navajo Hipster Panty.” In fact, I recently became aware that the Navajo Nation Attorney General sent your company a cease and desist letter regarding this very issue. I stand in solidarity with the Navajo Nation and ask that you not only cease and desist selling products falsely using the Navajo name, but that you also stop selling faux Indian apparel that objectifies all tribes.
Urban Outfitters Inc. has taken Indigenous life ways and artistic expressions and trivialized and sexualized them for the sake of corporate profit. It is this kind of behavior that perpetuates the stereotype of the white man’s Indian and allows for the ongoing commodification of an entire ethnic group. Just as our traditional homelands were stolen and expropriated without regard, so too has our very cultural identity. On this day that America still celebrates as Columbus Day, I ask that do what is morally right and apologize to Indigenous peoples of North America and withdraw this offensive line from retail stores.
Sasha Houston Brown, Dakota
Santee Sioux Nation