In 2012, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters, Inc. for alleged violations of federal and state trademarks. Four years later, the case has yet to be settled.
On February 3, the retail chain asked a federal judge in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to limit how far back in time the tribe can go to seek money from the company’s products. The judge has not issued an immediate ruling.
The controversy made headlines back in 2011 when the retail chain advertised such items as the “Navajo hipster panty” and “Navajo print fabric wrapped flask.” After a significant media backlash and a cease and desist letter from the Navajo Nation, the company removed the “Navajo” name from its website.
The Navajo Nation, however, contends in its lawsuit that products with the Navajo name are still being sold through other company brands, like Free People, in catalogues and retail stores. The company never asked the tribe for permission to use its name.
Millions of dollars are potentially at stake in the suit. The tribe is seeking revenue from products using the “Navajo” name starting from 2008. Urban Outfitters, however, counters that the term “Navajo” is a generic term for a style or design, and that the tribe took too long to file suit. The company wants a judge to not only determine that it hasn’t infringed upon the tribe’s rights but to also cancel the tribe’s federal trademark registrations.
Diné [Navajo] tribal member Casey John disagrees with the argument that “Navajo” is a generic term. “Using Navajo to describe something is further colonizing the word. Using it to refer to a type of pattern … it’s not really a pattern,” she says. “To say it’s just a design, they don’t need permission from a tribe that federally, legally calls themselves Navajo … it’s just ridiculous. It’s legally the name we use in any kind of actions with other nations, the government. It [the name] should not be taken lightly at all.”
The retail company is no stranger to racially charged controversies. In 2005, it faced backlash for selling a T-shirt with the phrase “New Mexico: Cleaner than regular Mexico,” and again in 2010 for describing a T-shirt color as “Obama/Black.”