I find it ironic the Navajo Nation is suing Urban Outfitters for copyright infringement on a pair of underwear.
First off, I pledge total support toward the Navajo effort and anticipate the case will set precedent for future legal action by Tribes with regard to misappropriation. The American Indian Arts and Crafts Act is a weapon Tribes have yet to fully wield on the legal battlefield.
The irony is, the Navajo might themselves be guilty of infringement. My evidence is as follows:
A few months back I attended a large formal doings where the featured artist was famed Navajo flutist R. Carlos Nakai. The emcee informed the crowd that Mr. Nakai has sold over three (3) million albums worldwide. (That’s like triple-platinum in Indian country.) Mr. Nakai wore his hair parted down the middle, with braids tucked behind each ear. His evening attire included a fully beaded vest featuring geometric Plains-style designs.
As Mr. Nakai entertained the crowd, my uncle leaned over and quietly asked me, “When did Navajos start dressing like us and playing flutes?”
A few days ago, I repeated the question to a Navajo colleague; he told me he wondered the same thing when he first saw a Navajo playing the flute in the movie Windtalkers. The question sparked conversation on Navajo infringement.
Let me first present the icon of Pan-Indianism: Frybread. I’m not an expert on Frybread, but it seems in nearly every Skin community there is a Champion Frybreader. The thing about Skins is that we are a lot like Frybread; we come in various shapes, sizes, and shades of brown depending on the ingredients and region. Generally in most communities, the delicacy is known generically as Frybread. The exception is the Navajo, who specialize in “Navajo Frybread”.
Frybread is the essential component to another icon of Pan-Indian culture: the Indian Taco. Again, generally this term is accepted by most Skins, except for the Navajo, who claim the “Navajo Taco” as their own.
One can find Frybread and Indian Tacos at a Powwow. Powwow itself has evolved into a Pan-Indian event, but the origins of the different song and dance styles are tribally or regionally specific. For example, the Jingle Dress is known to be Ojibwe in origin. Another example is the Grass Dance. And while the original societies often traded, bought and/or sold songs, style of dress, and customs, among fellow grassland Tribes, to my knowledge, prairie grass is not native to the desert.
Many Tribes have made unique contributions to the powwow arena. The southern plains spawned distinctive Traditional styles as well as the instantly popular Fancy War Bustle. In addition, the Omaha style of dress, Sioux style, Crow style, Woodlands style, the Chicken dance, and the Round Bustle have all been exclusive contributions by various Tribes throughout the powwow circuit. Other notables include the Smoke Dance of the Six Nations; the Cree style Round Dance, the Eastern Blanket dance, and the Short Fringe Dress of the Plateau tribes. But to date, Navajo people have not created a dance style that is found throughout powwow circles.
When I first started attending powwows in the Southwest, I noticed that while the competition was strong, the style was almost entirely borrowed. Our singers joked that it was like the Flea Market of powwows, and that everything looked authentic from a distance, but upon closer inspection it was mostly imitation and knockoff. It seemed to us that almost every champion dancer from the Dakotas, Montana, the Midwest or Canada had a “Bootleg Navajo” version. (HILARIOUS)
The infringement became most apparent at the World’s Largest Powwow: The Gathering of Navajos… Ah, I mean Nations. While the event attracts attendees from all over Indian Country, the majority of attendees are Navajo. Even the Gathering of Nations theme song is performed in Navajo. But to their credit, a good number of dancers have been brought into the arena in a proper manner, and the Navajo Nation continues to produce World Champion singers and dancers season after season.
Another thing about Skins is we really like to tease. In fact, the practice is considered formal etiquette among respected relatives. We tease as a playful sign of admiration, respect, and to reassure our relatives of their place within our circle.
So before anyone’s feathers get too ruffled, remember that Powwow is supposed to be fun. We clown to entertain, and to educate in a manner meant to heal, because laughter is good medicine. Too often the politics, the egos, the gossip, the money, and the competition shade the true nature and spirit of the circle. My favorite part of the powwow is the InterTribal, a time when everyone is welcome in to the arena. One doesn’t need an outfit, a category, or even a tribe, only the rhythm in their heartbeat, and a good song.
The importance of the Navajo case against Urban Outfitters is that if major corporations are making money using our names, designs, imagery, and culture, then Tribes could too. Of course certain aspects MUST NEVER be considered or valued as capital, and it is critical we protect those resources.
For Crazy Horse said, “One does not sell land upon which people walk,” but he didn’t mention anything about their underwear. (As a boy I would have loved Sioux-per Man Under-Rees made by Utes of the Loom.)
Albums on iTunes sell for about $9.99 each. I wonder of the three (3) million albums sold by R. Carlos Nakai, how much of the profit was kept by his publisher Canyon Records? $30 million dollars could be the change that sparks economic development in Tribal communities who remain in poverty despite revenue from gaming enterprise. This includes the urban Skin community.
Should the Navajo Nation be successful in gaining monetary compensation from Urban Outfitters illegal infringement, the resources should be used to strengthen the educational infrastructure that supports a growing number of Skin fashionistas. We must look to the successful endeavors of artisans like Bunky Echo-Hawk, Bethany Yellowtail, Sho Esquiro or Wabanoonkwe Cameron, and seek collaborative efforts with world-class corporations if we are to be taken seriously in the marketplace. We must no longer accept silk-screen printed t-shirts, and Native Pride hats, as the pinnacles of mainstream product design and marketability. Using the term Native in a product’s name can no longer be a free pass for authentication, nor can it be an endorsement of subpar quality. Including fashion, redefining our professionalism must extend to other forms of multimedia including art, music, film, and branding.
Given the uniqueness and diversity of the Made in Native America “brand”, and the history of the marketability of our art, culture, and image, even if we are currently just a pop culture fad, I highly doubt that being Skin will ever fade from being “in”.
In the process of decolonization, the reclamation of our images, designs, and names, are the avenues to the rediscovery and restoration of our identity. Ultimately our identity is deeply connected to the places to which we are Native. When our land was infringed upon, so too was our identity; first by Hollywood, then by sports franchises, and today the process continues in the form of corporate exploitation.
Tribal communities must follow the lead of the Navajo Nation, and challenge those who seek to exploit our natural, cultural, and human resources. It is important and to the benefit of our future generations that we protect our identity, our sovereignty, and our land from any further infringement. This includes, of course, any infringement upon our underwear, no matter how ironic.
Cetan Wanbli Williams is a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe. He is a regular contributor to The Thing About Skins and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.