Fashion retailer Urban Outfitters has landed in hot water after a scathing letter points out its (potentially illegal) fascination with all things Navajo.
Earlier this week, Sasha Houston Brown of Minneapolis published an open letter to the company’s CEO as a guest contributor on the blog Racialicious. Brown posits that the frequent use of “Navajo” to describe and market Urban Outfitters’ products is offensive, and moreover, a possible violation of federal law.
“As a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor,” Brown writes. “I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as ‘fashion.’ ”
(MORE: Art: The Navajo Blanket)
The passionate letter stresses that rather than supporting traditional Native American arts and crafts, made by actual Native Americans, Urban Outfitters is knocking them off cheaply and turning a profit for itself. Brown asks that the products in question be withdrawn from stores.
At issue is the fact that “Navajo” is not just a sartorial description; it is a tribe of people that make up a nation under U.S. law. The Navajo Nation has 12 trademarks on the term “Navajo,” including those for apparel and online retailing. The Attorney General of Navajo Nation sent Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter several months ago with regard to the offending products, but it is not clear what, if any, response it received.
More importantly, the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 prohibits falsely claiming or implying that an item is Native American-made when it is not. Violators are subject to civil penalties and could potentially be prosecuted and fined up to $1 million.
“I doubt that you consulted the Navajo Nation about using their tribal name on sophisticated items such as the ‘Navajo Hipster Panty,’ ” Brown jabs. “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.”
This season, tribal prints have been a major trend, showing up in numerous fall runway shows, such as Isabel Marant and Proenza Schouler. Naturally, the trend has trickled down to the fast-fashion chains as well. But the ready-to-wear designers who have jumped on the Native American bandwagon have, for the most part, tried to avoid specifically labeling their clothing or marketing their collections as “Navajo.”
A key issue is whether Urban Outfitters is describing the style of the product, or suggesting that it was actually made by Navajo artisans. Currently there are 23 products labeled as “Navajo” on the company’s website, as well as 13 described as the more generic “tribal.” And the trend is not limited to Urban Outfitters: Forever 21 also has 6 “Navajo” products, and a whopping 113 that are “tribal.”
Urban Outfitters has not yet issued a public response to Brown’s letter.
MORE: Model Sues Urban Outfitters Over ‘Salacious’ Photo Printed on T-Shirt
Allison Berry is a contributor at TIME. You can continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.