October 14, 2011

Why protest Urban Outfitters?

In What’s Next for the Urban Outfitters Navajo Case? Adrienne Keene notes some defenders of the privileged status quo:Most of the media outlets covering the back-and-forth between the Navajo Nation and Urban Outfitters wonder if Navajo even has a case, and plenty of commenters dismiss the tribe and the concerns completely:

saeda: “I don’t think anyone assumes real natives made those panties.”

night crone: “Don’t you think bringing all the media attention to this, will only draw more people to Urban and sell more? Urban doesn’t care if anyone is offended, they just want to make money, and you’ve given them lots of free advertising.”

Merthyr Bong: “As a person of Scots ancestry I am offended by Scotch tape! How dare they! Using plaid even! Where can I get my money and 15 minutes of fame for being offended?”

Lynnie123: “What—no one else in the world could come up with those patterns? They’re probably angry because the Native Americans aren’t making money on the deal.”
Then she answers these critics:Jezebel posted a fabulous piece yesterday detailing the ins and outs of intellectual property law and fashion, tying in the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and other measures in place to protect Native artisans. They quote Susan Scadafi, a professor at Fordham Law, who says, of tribal trademark cases:

“It’s an issue when you have indigenous peoples…who have been subject to actual genocide, and then you come back around with what some people characterize as cultural genocide. The pillaging of land, the pillaging of personal property, followed by the pillaging of what could be considered intellectual property. It’s something that occurs against a background of a lot of other offensive actions.”

That, to me, is the root of it all. This goes far beyond an issue of trademarks or truth in advertising. This is also an issue of representation, and an issue of power. I, personally, don’t care about a pair of socks called “Navajo,” but I do care about what they represent. They represent the appropriation of Native American cultures and lifeways, and the continued stereotyping of Indigenous Peoples. Most consumers look at that sock and can’t imagine that it holds any meaning beyond its $4.99 price tag. But I, and other Native people, look at that sock and see that the painful history that has allowed the vast majority of Americans to ignore our continued existence.

These “Navajo” products, and the thousands like them found at shops all over the world, relegate Native peoples to a stereotype. We are nothing more than a one-dimensional fictitious “Native American culture” represented by southwestern designs, fringe, feathers, and buckskin; when in reality we are a diverse, vibrant population of over 565 tribes and communities, each with our own traditions, languages and cultures.
Comment:  You could apply these comments to almost any stereotype controversy. No one is claiming that any particular mascot or stereotype is going to kill anyone. But each instance is part of a 500-year pattern of destruction and demonization. They represent the Indians' loss of power, wealth, and status, as Americans continue to neglect and marginalize them.

If Indians could restore their power, wealth, and status with a magic wand, they would. Then they wouldn't have to fight individual cases of cultural theft and misrepresentation. Since they can't do that, what do you expect them to do? Sit back and enjoy being raped and exploited?

Until we eradicate racism and stereotyping with the equivalent of a nuclear bomb, all they can do is chip away at the problems one piece at a time. That's what they're doing with these cultural battles. Not trying to eliminate "Navajo" panties and sox--at least not primarily--because these items aren't that important. Rather, reminding people that they're still here and their beliefs and wishes matter. That the destruction and demonization must stop now, because Indians aren't going to let them continue.

For more on the subject, see Media Covers Urban Outfitters Controversy and Open Letter to Urban Outfitters.

1 comment:

bonfire of my vanity said...

here, here. totally agree with you.