Politics of the Runway
January 16, 2012 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Urban Outfitters has stopped selling a line of Navajo-themed undergarments, drinking accessories, and other items whose relation to the tribe is questionable, at best. What caused the kerfuffle, and did UO have any obligation (beyond the obvious PR repercussions) to give way?

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA - FAQ here) gives recognized Native American tribes the ability to punish illegitimate sales and exploitation of sacred designs and other items. Native American designs have been a consistent source of inspiration and design for mainstream fashion ever since the "New World" was discovered and settled by Europeans. Even companies with relatively good relations with tribes such as Pendleton can be seen as unfairly taking sacred designs and fetishizing them as trend items.
posted by anewnadir (130 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
It will always be acceptable to make jokes about the Na'vi, however.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:47 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Previously in tone-deaf cultural co-opting by major clothing retailers.
posted by griphus at 8:55 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The word "hipster" seems to be doing a lot of work in that Pembleton blog post. What's the difference between an appropriating hipster and an ordinary person wearing clothes? Is it ok to like the clothes if you're not Native but also not a hipster?
posted by craichead at 8:59 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hasn't Urban Outfitters made mistakes like this before? How have they not just figured out not to ever mention any race or ethnicity ever?
posted by madcaptenor at 9:02 AM on January 16, 2012


I don't see the problem. Religious iconography on clothing is common; what's the problem with putting a Native American-inspired print on stuff? Is it because they used the Navajo name? My Tibetan friends love it when they see Tibetan-inspired clothing and stuff in stores. It seems to make them feel less isolated/invisible.

And I haven't seen any Catholics getting pissed over this, which is arguably more offensive (directly cashing in on someone's religion).

OTOH, I get why a Navajo flask is in bad taste.

Also, I like the printed panties.
posted by coolguymichael at 9:05 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why panties? Because of the play on phonetics.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:07 AM on January 16, 2012


Especially hipster knickers.
posted by Forktine at 9:13 AM on January 16, 2012


And I haven't seen any Catholics getting pissed over this

But they did get pissed over this. Just sayin'.
posted by lampshade at 9:14 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why panties? Because of the play on phonetics.

Are you asking why they made panties, or why I chose that as the example of an item I liked?

If the latter, it's because I first saw this reported in this article, and thought, "Those are cute as hell, and my gf would love them."

(And if the former, where's the phonetics play?)
posted by coolguymichael at 9:15 AM on January 16, 2012


Ho.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:15 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the problem stems from differences in how Native Tribes and the more traditional 'religions' cited in the above comments view their ancestry and iconography. Arguably Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism have freely 'chosen' to participate in secular, Western society, which implies a kind of consent to the sort of aesthetic remixing which offends Navajo commentators. Native Americans, on the other hand, have been 'included' in Western society without their consent. NAGPRA is just a legal enunciation of a wider (and, IMO, long-overdue) chagrin on the part of American government and society for centuries of forced cultural expropriation.

That said, I am as white as gringos come, and I have more than a few Kachina dolls adorning my house. So take my perspective, as well as any others, with the requisite grain of salt.
posted by anewnadir at 9:16 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, while there was some complaint about the specific designs being used, it was the frequent use of the word "Navajo" in product names and descriptions that was the biggest issue as it implied the tribes had given their approval for the products.
posted by jazon at 9:20 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


And I haven't seen any Catholics getting pissed over this

Most people who wear shirts like that are some form of Christian, even if lapsed. That's not the case for faux-Native American gear.

My Tibetan friends love it when they see Tibetan-inspired clothing and stuff in stores. It seems to make them feel less isolated/invisible.

Your Tibetan friends don't speak for all members of appropriated cultures?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:25 AM on January 16, 2012 [18 favorites]


I was in the UK last year and had occasion to visit the curators of a major collection of Native American ceremonial art and artifacts. Unlike American institutions, which are now largely bound under federal law (NAFTA and others) to respect certain claims of cultural ownership or patrimony, and obligated to make efforts to repatriate certain kinds of artifacts and art (as well as all kinds of human remains), European institutions (which often hold priceless Native American treasures) are not so bound. But many of the (younger) scholars and curators of major European academic museums there are making good faith efforts anyway, which is to be applauded (and was why I was there, in fact).

So this museum has a very large and important *replica* of ceremonial object that was actually created from raw materials in the UK, by a British explorer/anthropologist type, based on a model from a certain still thriving Native American culture. (I don't want to be more precise than that.) Nonetheless, the tribe has requested that this object be returned or at least not displayed, due to the sacred meaning and power of its visual design. However, when queried more specifically by the curators, it turned out that the tribe's ceremonial specialists were not so concerned with getting the object back because they wanted to control it, but because they actively feared the object's powers would be very dangerous in the uneducated hands of British curators -- *for* the curators. As they saw it, they were warning the museum to be careful, and offering to take the problem off their hands.

This is to leave aside the entire question of what belongs to whom and where the right to copy ends and the obligation not to steal or infringe begins.

So watch out, Urban Outfitters. Coyote might be eating your colonialist ass one of these days. Don't say you weren't warned.
posted by spitbull at 9:26 AM on January 16, 2012 [21 favorites]


Isn't fashion in general the history of cultural appropriation and re-purposing? Is this example any more insensitive than every single Milan catwalk show ever?
posted by londonmark at 9:27 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can't recall the last time I saw a hipster dressed as a Catholic priest or a rabbi, can you?
posted by spitbull at 9:28 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Is this example any more insensitive than every single Milan catwalk show ever?

The two don't really compare well. Urban Outfitters is mass marketing the crap, what the models wear in the silly fashion shows is more just concept and hype generation.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:31 AM on January 16, 2012


I'd imagine that survivors of all of that abuse and genocide could be a bit sensitive about watching the remains of their culture get auctioned off for profit.

I really wish that was hyperbole.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:32 AM on January 16, 2012 [29 favorites]


Isn't fashion in general the history of cultural appropriation and re-purposing? Is this example any more insensitive than every single Milan catwalk show ever?
posted by londonmark at 12:27 PM on January 16 [+] [!]


Two wrongs don't make a right?

C'mon, guys, you have to be able to see why the appropriation of cultural markers of a culture that's been systematically destroyed by Westerners over the course of the last few hundred years is hella problematic.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:33 AM on January 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


Isn't fashion everything in general the history of cultural appropriation and re-purposing?


Culture also advances as a history of respect, acknowledgment, recognition, and remuneration for invention of all sorts, under any regime of ownership of intellectual property or creative effort (and Native American cultures certainly have their own such regimes, some of which are recognizably analogous to the open source movement's ideals, by the way).

The question is what's borrowing, what's appropriation, what's fair use, what's theft, and what's genocide followed by the outright mockery of racist stereotyping and the assumption of invisibility and disempowerment requiring no good faith effort to achieve a fair arrangement.
posted by spitbull at 9:33 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


what's the problem with putting a Native American-inspired print on stuff?

(Some) tribes have a problem with it, and that's a problem. That some religious traditions are fine with the commercialization of their iconography does not mean all are, or should be. Also, there's a teeny difference (in terms of current and historical cultural context) between Christianity and the religious traditions of Native Americans.
posted by rtha at 9:33 AM on January 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


Aesthetically, I really like Native American patterns, but thanks to blood quanta policies I don't get to say I'm Native American. My lineage was kidnapped and raped out of the tribe and there's no way back in. Oh well, I get all of the alcoholic genes and none of the sweet patterns.
posted by fuq at 9:37 AM on January 16, 2012


all of the alcoholic genes

ouch
posted by kingbenny at 9:40 AM on January 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


Hasn't Urban Outfitters made mistakes like this before? How have they not just figured out not to ever mention any race or ethnicity ever?

Quite a few times. The simplest explanation is probably that they do it on purpose.
posted by box at 9:42 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


*comfort* fuq. No chance of them re-opening the books at your tribe?

I'm in the same boat but I'm sure I'll eventually get on one day, it was really great for my family's genealogical efforts to finally mean something when our tribe finally dropped the blood quanta requirements from one level to another (achievable) level.

Heck I'd be on the roll now if they simply honored the census records of a neighboring county.... but noooooo. /rant
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:42 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm still uncomfortable about the name of the "Apache Software Foundation."
posted by clvrmnky at 9:45 AM on January 16, 2012


> I'm still uncomfortable about the name of the "Apache Software Foundation."

Well, let's focus our discomfort on the fucking Washington Redskins first.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:45 AM on January 16, 2012 [12 favorites]


Two wrongs don't make a right?
But isn't the question about when it's wrong? It's clearly wrong when it's a sacred object or image, I would say. But the Pembleton blankets aren't sacred, I don't think. They're just considered special and given as gifts at special times, like graduations. And in that case, it's not clear to me where to draw the line between exploitative appropriation and the kind of cultural exchange that is inevitable in the modern world.
posted by craichead at 9:49 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


what's the problem with putting a Native American-inspired print on stuff?

I'd agree with you up to a point if some of what they were selling wasn't oozing with subtle racism. That's what really bothered me about this.
posted by squeak at 9:49 AM on January 16, 2012


spitbull: The question is what's borrowing, what's appropriation, what's fair use, what's theft, and what's genocide followed by the outright mockery of racist stereotyping and the assumption of invisibility and disempowerment requiring no good faith effort to achieve a fair arrangement.

The problem is, who do you make the arrangement with? I think the idea that a culture has leaders or representatives (decided through what methods?) is at least as problematic as the idea of cultural appropriation. First of all, who should profit from the arrangement? Does a genetic member of the tribe who has completely abandoned the culture count? Does a person who is involved with the culture but not related (say, the spouse of an active member) count? Second, once you put someone in charge of a culture, they often try to police it. You get rules, police, etc... and the culture is often left to stagnate or become corrupted. It can get ugly.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:50 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


...that is inevitable in the modern world.

Nothing is inevitable.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:52 AM on January 16, 2012


Can't recall the last time I saw a hipster dressed as a Catholic priest or a rabbi, can you?

As a nun, on the other hand....
posted by y2karl at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2012


But isn't the question about when it's wrong? It's clearly wrong when it's a sacred object or image, I would say. But the Pembleton blankets aren't sacred, I don't think. They're just considered special and given as gifts at special times, like graduations. And in that case, it's not clear to me where to draw the line between exploitative appropriation and the kind of cultural exchange that is inevitable in the modern world.

The link the OP posted about pendleton blankets is pretty good at unraveling the complexities.

But I really don't think that the fashion world's history of appropriation is really a good justification for continued appropriation. Here, UO is marketing items that aren't even traditionally Navajo (dreamcatchers) as such, which is also kinda sorta illegal.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The two don't really compare well. Urban Outfitters is mass marketing the crap, what the models wear in the silly fashion shows is more just concept and hype generation.

Makes it sound like the distinction that matters is between what you think is crap, and what you think is not.

I'd imagine that survivors of all of that abuse and genocide could be a bit sensitive about watching the remains of their culture get auctioned off for profit.

I really wish that was hyperbole.


My culture getting auctioned off for profit doesn't actually rob me of my culture.

C'mon, guys, you have to be able to see why the appropriation of cultural markers of a culture that's been systematically destroyed by Westerners over the course of the last few hundred years is hella problematic.

The problematic part is that it's problematic if someone decides it should be problematic. The appropriation of culture doesn't quite seem the central issue here, but rather more of an IP/truth-in-marketing issue. I think it's fair to say that "Navajo rug" should probably mean "made by Navajos". But "Navajo-style", or just plain Native American motif seems fair play, clearly indicating the lack of tribal authenticity.

But isn't the question about when it's wrong? It's clearly wrong when it's a sacred object or image, I would say.

I wouldn't. This issue sounds like it should be one of taste rather than legality, unless routine legal IP protections have been taken.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:04 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


craichead: "What's the difference between an appropriating hipster and an ordinary person wearing clothes? Is it ok to like the clothes if you're not Native but also not a hipster?"

Part of the reason this issue is so difficult to address is because there's not really a bright line rule to explain the difference between appropriation and celebration of Native culture; it's really a "know it when you see it" kind of thing that requires you consider the context of each particular instance. For that reason, I really enjoy reading the Native Appropriations blog in the last link of the post, because I think she does a really nice job of articulating the issue by providing thoughtful examples and explanations. Her post on the Neon Indian show does a great job of explaining the dangers of appropriating cultural dress as costume without any sort of understanding of the cultural references in play, namely perpetuation of unhealthy cultural stereotypes.

Melissa Harris-Perry recently addressed a similar perpetuation of stereotypes in the context of African-American women on the Colbert Report.
posted by Dr. Zira at 10:07 AM on January 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


Of course brewers, distillers, and cheesemakers enforce regional trademarks on products, I'm not certain how Navajo is all that different of a trademark here.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:08 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just bought some Pendleton shirts and a blanket (not a Native print) as part of my attempt to buy classics and now I find I'm accidentally trendy. Life is weird.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:11 AM on January 16, 2012


Every time I read a link like this I think of this article http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/f/frank-dissent.html
posted by Felex at 10:13 AM on January 16, 2012


Her post on the Neon Indian show does a great job of explaining the dangers of appropriating cultural dress as costume without any sort of understanding of the cultural references in play, namely perpetuation of unhealthy cultural stereotypes.
Well, sure. But I don't think that the makers of this outfit are playing on cultural stereotypes, any more than they'd be playing on Scottish stereotypes if the pattern on it was tartan or fair isle.

I'm a knitter, and I knit a lot of stranded colorwork. A lot of it is associated with particular places and cultures. Am I appropriating if I knit Fair Isle, even though none of my ancestors were from the British Isles? What about if I knit Latvian mittens? (And I actually do knit a lot of Latvian mittens. They're one of my favorite things to knit.) My mom's grandparents came from Latvia, but they weren't considered "Latvian," because they were Jewish. Am I Latvian enough to knit Latvian mittens without appropriating? Who do I ask? What do I do if some Latvians say it's ok but others don't?
posted by craichead at 10:20 AM on January 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


From my reading of the links, it sounds like this is a legal issue that is about more than the offense. The Navajo name is trademarked.

From the "has stopped" link:

"The tribe holds at least 10 trademarks on the Navajo name that cover clothing, footwear, online retail sales, household products and textiles, and said it was intent on protecting those trademarks."

So the Redskins and Fair Isle examples aren't really the same because this seems like it's a legal issue. The fact that tribes are enforcing their rights over their trademarks is pretty interesting. I didn't know much about that.
posted by sweetkid at 10:31 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


jazon has nailed the problem here. It's not about "appropriating designs", that's a red herring. It's about caveat emptor.

Use of the word 'Navajo' leads unwary consumers to think they're buying native-made goods. BAD karma; this kind of crap was once widespread, to the detriment of native craftspeople... and of the consumer, since cheap knockoffs don't last for decades, like the real thing. (Side note: Pendleton's goods are highly-regarded in much of Indian country.)
posted by Twang at 10:59 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Am I appropriating if I knit Fair Isle, even though none of my ancestors were from the British Isles? What about if I knit Latvian mittens?

Well, if your ancestors were directly involved in the stealing of British or Latvian land, whether peacefully or violently, or if you yourself live on such land or benefit from such theft, I think it's nice to at least stop and think, "By using these patterns without the consent of those who originally developed them, am I perpetuating further theft and marginalization?"

This is a really complicated issue and of course generalizations aren't fair. There are a lot of problematic things going on: (1) Using the names of tribes to sell products without authorization (ie violation of trademark); (2) using the names of tribes to sell products not actually related to that tribe (ie, calling something a Navajo dreamcatcher) (ie, racism - "all indian tribes are alike"); (3) using the catch-all term "Indian" to sell something as authentic when it's really not (again, racism - all Indian tribes did not ascribe the same cultural symbols); (4) Selling an older "Indian Aesthetic" as authentic without referencing the fact that Native Americans are not a historical artifact but a living, breathing, working race (I don't know if this is racist or just insensitive) (5) Using religious iconography from religious traditions that we tried to wipe off this earth (actually this is really illustrative - when a 20-something white person wears an Indian headdress, odds are they have no idea what that headdress means even though it is still currently used in religious and cultural ceremonies.)
posted by muddgirl at 11:19 AM on January 16, 2012 [13 favorites]


...duh, of course you can't get the consent of those who originally developed, say, Native American weaving patterns, but you can think about who should benefit from present marketing and sale of such patterns.

I don't think anyone's saying that you can't weave up a Pendleton blanket for your personal use. The problem, as always, comes when you try to market or sell it.
posted by muddgirl at 11:30 AM on January 16, 2012


...and of course Pendleton blankets are a complicated example, as well. This stuff isn't easy.
posted by muddgirl at 11:32 AM on January 16, 2012


My Tibetan friends love it when they see Tibetan-inspired clothing and stuff in stores. It seems to make them feel less isolated/invisible.

Bob doesn't mind when I punch him in the head. Why shouldn't I be allowed to punch everyone in the head?
posted by klanawa at 12:08 PM on January 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


Native Americans have been forced into a no-win situation: they can either assimilate into the identity and value system of their plague-carrying aggressors, or they can adopt an oppositional identity which exists to reaffirm boundaries and to defend cultural territory under attack. Each approach has problems, and there isn't really a good "fix," without a time machine handy.

This is why it isn't cool to bring smallpox and genocidal tendencies when you visit other continents.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:19 PM on January 16, 2012


craichead: "Am I Latvian enough to knit Latvian mittens without appropriating? Who do I ask? What do I do if some Latvians say it's ok but others don't?"

It seems to me like the mere fact that you care enough to ask whether or not your work will be offensive to a particular group is an indicator putting your work more on the side of celebration of culture rather than an appropriation of one. By contrast, I don't see similar care or concern placed into the UO line of products, which appear to lack any respect for the underlying culture upon which the influence is based. There's a huge difference between someone like yourself who puts some time and effort into understanding the origins of a particular pattern and recreates it in an appropriate context, and someone without that same knowledge appropriating a particular cultural image which becomes offensive because it becomes cartoonish or lampoonish out of context or flat out disrespectful when worn incorrectly.

Further, the particular examples you've cited, aren't exactly comparable to the issues with appropriation of Native American culture raised here; you're talking about particular craft techniques which, although they may be derived from a particular ethnic culture, their misuse carries very little risk of offense as a lampoon or caricature of the underlying culture because they have very different histories than those of United States Native Americans. For example, the last time I checked, Latvia and Scotland aren't involved in ongoing, daily battles to protect their sovereign rights as nations and the individual rights of their citizens like the 565+ tribes here in the US are.

I'd also argue that it's much more difficult to wear a Fair Isle sweater or Latvian mittens in a way that is insulting to ethnic Scots or Latvians. On the other hand, if you were wearing Fair Isle underwear to your next Halloween party because you've decided your costume is "Scotsman", then it might be a different story. It's kind of ridiculous, offensive and demeaning to reduce any political or ethnic group to a costume if you ask me, but there are many who will certainly disagree with that view.

On the other hand, it's pretty easy to wear Native American garments or dress or other artifacts in a way that is offensive because wearing them requires some knowledge of how they are supposed to be worn. When someone wears a highly specialized garment like a headdress (which seems to be the one item that people most commonly associate with "being Indian") without bothering to learn what the garment is or what the purpose of the garment is, that in and of itself can be offensive because in essence, the wearer is not only saying "I'm wearing a costume" but "I can't be arsed to really learn anything about your culture and to me, all Indians look the same." The Miss Canada debacle is a good example because she was purported to be paying homage to the Haida people, but then dressed in a Plains warbonnet which not only would NOT have been worn by Haidas, were generally only worn by Plains Indian men. As a non-Indian who does a lot of work trying to defend the rights of tribes and tribal members from ongoing attempts by federal courts to weaken the sovereign status of the Indian nations who happen to reside within US borders, it's personally really frustrating to see someone who's clearly non-Indian misappropriating Native culture because it epitomizes the racist attitudes I deal with on a daily basis from federal courts; to them, tribes sort of exist as antiquated museum cultures; anthropological artifacts of a bygone era who just need to assimilate into majority culture.

As other commenters have already noted, the Pendleton issue is more complicated, and even the author herself questions whether or not her own offense is reasonable. For me, personally, the Pendleton blanket has some very specific meanings and connotations, and the value to me would be in the receipt of it as a gift from a tribe or tribal member as a token of gratitude or affection, and I couldn't get that just by buying it from Urban Outfitters.
posted by Dr. Zira at 12:32 PM on January 16, 2012 [19 favorites]


Bob doesn't mind when I punch him in the head. Why shouldn't I be allowed to punch everyone in the head?


Yes, because Tibetan inspired clothing is just like physical assault.

When the wrong being perpetrated is the cause of offence so someone's sensibilities, I think the case starts out pretty weak. Especially when the presumably aggrieved are not always terribly aggrieved.

of course you can't get the consent of those who originally developed, say, Native American weaving patterns, but you can think about who should benefit from present marketing and sale of such patterns.

It's probably a bad idea to start thinking of intellectual property rights that extend in perpetuity. That Native Americans (or whoever) may have suffered greatly in the past is historically significant, but has little if any significance in this issue or recreating art inspired by such cultures.

For most modern folks, the idea about cultural appropriation amounts to "tribal stuff that doesn't really concern me". Trademark infringement and truth in advertising are real issues that should be addressed. Some WASP guy making moccasins or Native American style flutes for, heaven forbid, sale, not so much.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:55 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The really unfortunate thing is that most of the Urban Outfitters stuff seems like it was appropriated third-hand from the hippies, who got it from Westerns, the makers of which generally didn't care much for accuracy.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:58 PM on January 16, 2012


It's probably a bad idea to start thinking of intellectual property rights that extend in perpetuity. That Native Americans (or whoever) may have suffered greatly in the past is historically significant, but has little if any significance in this issue or recreating art inspired by such cultures.

Right. Except for that whole thing about them still continuing to suffer greatly in the present.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:00 PM on January 16, 2012 [17 favorites]


The Miss Canada debacle is a good example because she was purported to be paying homage to the Haida people, but then dressed in a Plains warbonnet which not only would NOT have been worn by Haidas, were generally only worn by Plains Indian men. As a non-Indian who does a lot of work trying to defend the rights of tribes and tribal members from ongoing attempts by federal courts to weaken the sovereign status of the Indian nations who happen to reside within US borders, it's personally really frustrating to see someone who's clearly non-Indian misappropriating Native culture because it epitomizes the racist attitudes I deal with on a daily basis from federal courts; to them, tribes sort of exist as antiquated museum cultures; anthropological artifacts of a bygone era who just need to assimilate into majority culture.

Put another way: imagine someone trying to "celebrate" Western culture by featuring Santa Claus full-immersion baptizing the Pope, who is depicted as a leprechaun.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:05 PM on January 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sticherbeast, I'd also make sure to include a fat bystander wearing a cowboy hat and eating a Big Mac just to make sure we've completed the tableau. Maybe have Tim Tebow kneeling next to the baptismal as well.
posted by Dr. Zira at 1:10 PM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Make sure to call the whole thing "USian Pride"
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:15 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thomas Kincaid just got a spontaneous boner but hasn't the faintest idea why.
posted by griphus at 1:18 PM on January 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


Peace Treaty Feather Necklace

Holy shit this makes me rage. "Peace" treaties have a real and fucked up history and FUCK YOU URBAN OUTFITTERS
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:18 PM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think the practice of referring to intercultural PR issues as "appropriation" tends to derail conversation about them more than direct it. By calling it "appropriation" you invoke the idea, hotly contested, that it is possible in principle for a person or corporate entity to "own" an image, tradition, or culture. Quite a lot of people believe that it is, but precisely what they mean by that--what exactly can be owned? What special privileges and protections does the owner deserve?--varies all over and off the map, even if you're only talking about law. Here, we're talking about a notion of propriety to do with things that probably can't be legislated about, even in principle, for the tradition would change before the ink dried on the bill.

If you want to talk about this stuff, you need to work out exactly what concept of propriety you're using, and if you start by invoking the holy war over intellectual property, you'll spend most of your time explaining what you don't mean. Or, more likely, not communicating at all.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:24 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe the idea is that you pay UO for the necklace then return the necklace but UO keeps the cash.
posted by Dr. Zira at 1:24 PM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anyway as for the content: if they're actually going for hipster cred, why not hire some actual Iroquois designers, or something to that effect? Dodges the propriety issue, and makes great ad copy.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:33 PM on January 16, 2012


illegitimate sales and exploitation of sacred designs and other items.

Wow, so they get copyright forever on anything they say is sacred?

What a racket.
posted by Malor at 1:45 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not only is the UO stuff overprices, but it's ugly. No wonder the Navaho Nation is upset.

That leaves me with questions:

If UO had produced this overpriced and ugly stuff without any reference to a Native American tribe, would that have been OK?

What happens if, as an artist, I base my art on traditional designs drawing from various cultures, acknowledging the inspiration drawn from that culture. Is it OK if it's art with inspiration in a certain tradition?

Suppose then these designs are sold to be made into fabric, and the fabric made into clothing, and the clothing sold as fashions by XYZ store, designs by BlueHorse with inoffensive labels. Is that OK?

If the clothing had been truly beautiful and manufactured by actual Navahos, would that be OK?
posted by BlueHorse at 1:55 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


jo
posted by Burhanistan at 1:58 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The really unfortunate thing is that most of the Urban Outfitters stuff seems like it was appropriated third-hand from the hippies, who got it from Westerns, the makers of which generally didn't care much for accuracy.

I think this really turns out to be not very unfortunate at all. People appropriate from everywhere, have done so since the beginning, and one result is almost every comfort we enjoy today.

Right. Except for that whole thing about them still continuing to suffer greatly in the present.

Which, tragic as it may be, is irrelevant to the issue.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:05 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


LogicalDash: "Here, we're talking about a notion of propriety to do with things that probably can't be legislated about, even in principle, for the tradition would change before the ink dried on the bill."

It's not just a question of intellectual property as a matter of law; it's a question of cultural sensitivity and appropriateness as a matter of morality. Unfortunately, there is frequently a huge gap between a lawful action and moral action.
Even so, you can't analyze issues of federal Indian law under the lens of other canons of law because the rules are different. For example, IACA demonstrates that Congress can, and has, in fact, successfully crafted legislation aimed at protecting Indian culture. So assuming the issues of UO's actions here fall within the purview of IACA it's a mistake to analyze IACA as a creature of intellectual property law rather than federal Indian law, since the policy behind is is for the protection of tribes, not protection of the property itself, and tribes have a very unique body of federal law that does, indeed, recognize the special status of tribes, and an accompanying special notion of propriety vis a vis treatment of tribes and tribal members.

LogicalDash: "Anyway as for the content: if they're actually going for hipster cred, why not hire some actual Iroquois designers, or something to that effect? Dodges the propriety issue, and makes great ad copy."

That is a sensible idea, but I think the failure to do this is the root of the problem in the first place: failure of a corporation like UO to be sensitive to the cultural implications of their actions.. If they wanted to market a Navajo branded product, they'd have to start their decisionmaking process by recognizing what they don't know about the Navajo (which is obviously a great deal), and then make the effort to fill in their knowledge gaps, which would in turn prevent them from making the missteps which they made here; they'd need to understand and recognize, e.g., that Iroquois and Navajo are two different cultures so then they'd realize that if they wanted a Navajo-branded product, they'd need to find a designer with knowledge about the Navajo. They might then find a Navajo designer, who'd be able to educate them a bit so they understand why marketing a peace treaty necklace would be distasteful.

In other words, that a non-Indian corporation would even think that marketing Navajo hipster panties is a good idea, and that such an offensive idea could have even made it to production and market is a symptom of a larger problem. If the Navajo are indeed looking at using intellectual property laws (and/or other legal avenues, such as IACA) as a tool to teach non-Indian corporations an economic lesson about cultural insensitivity, hats off to counsel.
posted by Dr. Zira at 2:20 PM on January 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


2N2222: "I think this really turns out to be not very unfortunate at all. People appropriate from everywhere, have done so since the beginning, and one result is almost every comfort we enjoy today. "

Except in this case, there's a federal statute - the Indian Arts and Crafts Act - which written as a "truth in marketing" law which provides uniform standards to protect Indian artists from unfair competition by non-Indians.*

*Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law at 1264.
posted by Dr. Zira at 2:25 PM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


For example, the last time I checked, Latvia and Scotland aren't involved in ongoing, daily battles to protect their sovereign rights as nations and the individual rights of their citizens like the 565+ tribes here in the US are.
I'm actually not sure that everyone in Scotland would agree!

The UO stuff is offensive, but I'm still not sure how I feel about the Pendleton blog post. In that case, the blogger didn't object to the actual garments, and she didn't have a problem with the company. The clothes weren't copies of sacred or ceremonial objects, and nobody was pretending that they were. She was uncomfortable with "hipsters" wearing the clothes. The appropriation was only at the level of the consumer, not at the level of the manufacturer or the products. So what to make of that? How do I know if I'm the kind of person who can wear a certain kind of fabric or not? Should I perform research on every garment I find appealing to find out who originated the style of fabric and what my relationship is to them?
posted by craichead at 2:29 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Relevant.
posted by Morrigan at 2:36 PM on January 16, 2012


craichead: "I'm actually not sure that everyone in Scotland would agree!"
A fair point! But in the case of American Indians, there are also some complicated racial and ethnic issues tied up in the ongoing conversation that aren't at play in the examples you provided.
posted by Dr. Zira at 2:37 PM on January 16, 2012


Are we going to tell non-Scottish people they can't wear plaid?

(seriously, the general attitude here seems to be that UO was wrong here but that a similar statement about plaid would be ridiculous. Where is the line between the two?)
posted by madcaptenor at 2:43 PM on January 16, 2012


From the kerfuffel link:
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”.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:45 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


>>Right. Except for that whole thing about them still continuing to suffer greatly in the present.

>Which, tragic as it may be, is irrelevant to the issue.


How so? If a national chain like Urban Outfitters legitimately distributed actual Native-made products, that'd be a huge boon to the people making the stuff. Cutting in on real Native products with a line of cheap knockoffs has the opposite effect.

That seems entirely relevant, no?
posted by Sys Rq at 3:09 PM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


craichead and madcaptenor: Actually, I suspect that if you were a multimillion dollar retailer passing off sweatshop textiles as Scottish or Latvian, you might get a complaint from Scottish and Latvian textile groups who depend on such regional identification for their marketing and branding. The key distinction for me involves millions of dollars that are not going to Navajo businesses as part of this.

Now, personally, I see no reason to hold corporations and individual hobbyists to the same standards. If someone calls you out on a fashion faux pas, give them a fair listen and apologize if it's warranted. All this hand-wringing about unnamed people objecting to unspecified faults strikes me as borrowing trouble.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:15 PM on January 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


Incidentally, all this talk of Scottish people being a-okay with non-Scots wearing kilts is forgetting that kilts, bagpipes, and caber tossing are pretty much all that's left of Highland Scots identity after the cultural genocide of the Highland Clearances. (Which has a lot to do with why there were so many white people to displace the First Nations in the first place.)
posted by Sys Rq at 3:27 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


My sister is half native and works with a lot of native youth in South Dakota who have addiction and mental health issues. She gets frustrated at the cyclicle patterns. A lot of natives have a weird tendency to believe in the Christian god and think their spiritual beliefs are silly and not real. Interesting how that works. An invisible One god is certainly real but the many gods and rich spiritual traditions of the natives history are clearly silly.

This is so directly a result of white people literally forcing natives into punitive Christian retraining schools and harvesting native children from the tribes to get the heathen out of them.

But then again if you prayed to your deities to help you defeat the Christians and lost, I guess it makes sense to assume the Christian god must be mightier?

My point is after all that white people did to demeaningly destroy the native belief systems, the effects of which still remain in the present, cultural appropriation is really freaking shitty. Take your whatever dollars you were going to spend on the panties and send it straight to an orgination that is empowering native people from within.

Whenever native people assert the few rights they have left there is usually an -eyeroll- those natives are at it again? It's in the past who cares, it's no longer an issue.

No longer an issue for priveledged americans who don't HAVE to think about it because they aren't LITERALLY WATCHING the devastating poverty, cultural destruction, addiction, and emotional and psychological effects of the entire destruction of a huge number of peoples way of life. It's not an issue that's gone. The suffering isn't gone. The native americans are gone. They're still living with this.

And because there is NEVER a good time for priveledged immagrants to this nation to take the time to think about what could be done to remedy this suffering or what is happening in the world of native people--- understandably natives will take any opportunity they can to assert their rights and remind the world how sick it is to continue the cultural appropriation of a people who are STILL suffering from the acts of their cultural destruction.

It's not that native issues are not longer issues. It's that they are no longer issues for people priveledged enough to not have to see what's still happening.
posted by xarnop at 4:11 PM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


And just to say, do you think your Tibetan friends would think it was empowering for Chinese people to appropriate their designs for underwear? Would it make them feel seen and less isolated? "Hey we're not going to give your country back but we make these cute pink undies with Tibetan gods on them! Look how cute, you could even buy some if you want, don't you feel empowered and seen now?"
posted by xarnop at 4:17 PM on January 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


But in the case of American Indians, there are also some complicated racial and ethnic issues tied up in the ongoing conversation that aren't at play in the examples you provided.

These issues, it seems, are really separate from misrepresentation. Not only would it be difficult to get everyone in Scotland to agree on cultural creations, you might find it difficult to get Navajo and Hopi to agree on stuff, too.

If a national chain like Urban Outfitters legitimately distributed actual Native-made products, that'd be a huge boon to the people making the stuff. Cutting in on real Native products with a line of cheap knockoffs has the opposite effect.

The issue isn't whether Native Americans are owed these jobs or not. The issue is how much a tribe can own IP beyond its name.

Incidentally, all this talk of Scottish people being a-okay with non-Scots wearing kilts is forgetting that kilts, bagpipes, and caber tossing are pretty much all that's left of Highland Scots identity after the cultural genocide of the Highland Clearances.

It's interesting and somewhat related when Scottish traditions became so iconic and ensconced around the times of the Highland Clearances and after, an atmosphere where something like the Vestiarium Scoticum could have an influence on defining Scottish culture despite being regarded as a fabrication almost from the beginning.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:54 PM on January 16, 2012


The word "hipster" seems to be doing a lot of work in that Pembleton blog post. What's the difference between an appropriating hipster and an ordinary person wearing clothes? Is it ok to like the clothes if you're not Native but also not a hipster?
The products were specifically branded as "Hipster" items, i.e. "Navajo Hipster Panty"
posted by delmoi at 5:31 PM on January 16, 2012


2N2222: "These issues, it seems, are really separate from misrepresentation."

No, they're not, since one of the rights tribes and tribal members had to fight for two hundred years to obtain from the federal government is the right of self-determination, i.e., permitting tribes to define themselves. There are American tribes who are still fighting for that right. It is a foundational principle from which every bit of federal Indian law flows.


2N2222: "The issue isn't whether Native Americans are owed these jobs or not. The issue is how much a tribe can own IP beyond its name. "

Again, the policy behind the IACA has nothing to do with intellectual property. It was an IRA (Indian Reorganization Era) statute established in 1935 to reverse the devastating economic effects of allotment from the Dawes Act by providing a source of economic development for tribes. ("To promote the economic welfare of Indian tribes and the Indian wards of the Government through the development of Indian arts and crafts and the expansion of the market for the products of Indian art and craftsmanship.") In 1935, the government had just spent 30 some odd years terminating Indian reservations in attempt to destroy communal ownership of property, allotting reservations to individual tribal members in attempt to assimilate Indians by destroying communal ownership of property. It is now 2012, and part of my job involves assisting tribal governments who are still struggling to rebuild economically from the effects of allotment, all in the fact of a federal judiciary of non-Indian judges whose only understanding of what it means to be an Indian comes from cultural stereotypes perpetuated by non-Indians. That's not just hyperbole: I once attended a federal court of appeals hearing in which I watched the law clerks of the justices staring at the Indian men in the room as though they were sideshow freaks.
posted by Dr. Zira at 5:33 PM on January 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


The products were specifically branded as "Hipster" items, i.e. "Navajo Hipster Panty"

Hipster panties just refers to the cut. Hipsters are made to be worn lower on the hips than briefs. They're not panties for hipsters.
posted by sweetkid at 5:49 PM on January 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


The products were specifically branded as "Hipster" items, i.e. "Navajo Hipster Panty"
She was talking about the Pendleton Portland collection, which I don't think had any mention of hipsters (or panties).

(I love this dress. If I could afford it, I'd totally be tempted. So appropriation or no?)
posted by craichead at 5:51 PM on January 16, 2012


Craichead, if you're asking in sincerity because you still aren't sure what you think here is some extra reading about pendleton and a complex issue:
http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/why-the-native-fashion-trend-is-pissing-off-real-native-americans/

I don't think there is a simple answer. Depending on what country you're in could change the answer as could a lot of things. You could try going to indianz.com and asking some native people what they think if the one native voice already mentioned hasn't given you a clear perspective.

Argruing over specific rights is exactly the opposite of what a few native people have told me personally they're hoping to see. Previously native people didn't see ownership the same way and it COST THEM EVERYTHING because immigrants used their willingness to assume fair trade, sharing and giving- in order to take without giving in return.

The land that was freely given was often given in the hope of a spirit of mutual shared giving. That was not recipricated and a lot of suffering has happened to native people as a result. Instead of helping them as they dealt with smallpox and the way the alcohol affected them and the repercussions of all the land grabs we just used that to further theri destruction. Perhaps we who now live here could work to change that.

The better question is not "So how close can I get to a native theme without being seen as offensive" but rather "What could be done to repair this damage?" And worry about the dress later. It's really the fact that your first concern is which dress you can buy that is exactly thehe problem. But I am guessing you might have asked the question simply to be provacative.
posted by xarnop at 7:45 PM on January 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


xarnop, that Pendleton article is amazing! I just spent some time devouring it.

It reflects how very complex this issue is and how much time is spent thinking and writing about it. It kind of does my head in reading about the native people feeling appropriation from the Pendleton company creating styles for the Portland collection, while the original Pendleton blankets were appropriations themselves. And the ambiguity and confusion that even the native people feel when not completely understanding what appropriation bothers them and what doesn't.
posted by sweetkid at 8:02 PM on January 16, 2012


No, they're not, since one of the rights tribes and tribal members had to fight for two hundred years to obtain from the federal government is the right of self-determination, i.e., permitting tribes to define themselves.

It seems the problem here is the use of the word "Navajo" by UO. Your informative posts don't really seem to address that point, but seem to argue about the grander issues all around it. I mean, sure, tribes can define themselves as they see fit. But that doesn't necessarily mean much to outsiders. So are you saying that only Native Americans can make and sell works with Native American Motifs? I thought that was the crux of the issue?
posted by 2N2222 at 8:18 PM on January 16, 2012


You could try going to indianz.com and asking some native people what they think if the one native voice already mentioned hasn't given you a clear perspective.
Really? That seems like a really inappropriate thing to do on several levels. It's barging into other people's safe space and demanding that they stop everything and attend to my needs, and it's appointing them spokespeople for no good reason except that they happen to be on hand.
The better question is not "So how close can I get to a native theme without being seen as offensive" but rather "What could be done to repair this damage?" And worry about the dress later.
Well, thanks, but every morning I have to get dressed, and this issue doesn't just apply to this dress. What about the scarf my friend brought me from Turkey? My ikat skirt? How about food? I cook a fair amount of Indian food, because I shared cooking duties with my Bengali roommate for six years. Is that appropriation? Would it be if I were British, rather than USian?

I don't want to live in a narrow little cultural box defined by my ancestral culture, and I'm not even sure that I could. My ancestral culture has been borrowing and being borrowed from since forever, and it's impossible to know where it ends and other cultures begin. And there have always been nasty power relations involved in that borrowing. So where does that leave us all? Is this a continuum? Are some cultures totally off-limits and others totally fair game?
posted by craichead at 8:23 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know what country you live in, but we could by opening the doors of trade with a spirit of integrity to those whose goods and cultures we participate in. If we want a native motif, we could by from actual natives who can use the profits. If you live in the US you could think about the spirit the land you live on was given and what might be given to native peoples to help them recover the struggles they are facing.

The cultural approptiation that hurts the most is the attitude "I don't care how I got this land, who was destroyed for me to live on it, and I just want to use the fashion statements without thinking about how I can be good to others in need"

Celebrating a culture is fine, but you usually do that when there is a state of oppression and cultural obliteration going on between your people and the peoples whose culture you're using. Since the damage is current--- it's not the same thing as digging through history books to who attacked who. There are real people struggling currently and real people living on lands given in hopes of mutual reciprocity that has not been acounted for. Be part of restoring the spirit of mutual giving by actually caring about the issues at hand and the people affecting.

If you come at the issue in good faith ready to be there for others in need, then no it's not about what motif is in your home.
posted by xarnop at 8:31 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


" when there is *not* a..."
posted by xarnop at 8:32 PM on January 16, 2012


The better question is not "So how close can I get to a native theme without being seen as offensive" but rather "What could be done to repair this damage?"

But how responsible am I for righting these wrongs? Native Americans already have the protections against fraudulent goods. Why am I obligated to pay a Native American when I buy an item that was inspired by Native American culture, but may have been manufactured around the globe?

The way I see it, motifs pretty much belong to the world, be they Native American, African, etc. Be offended as you see fit, as is your right. But it's difficult to own such things, and until Native Americans can fill the demand for consumer goods, they will be fulfilled by others. I can't see how Native Americans are owed a living for this.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:48 PM on January 16, 2012


"The way I see it, motifs pretty much belong to the world, be they Native American, African, etc."

The way I see it the land you're living in pretty much belongs to the world. Be offended as you see it... so... I guess I'll be moving in soon... I hope you have a pool!

:P
posted by xarnop at 8:52 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


"But how responsible am I for righting these wrongs?"

I don't know... where is Gemini Cricket when you need him!? He must have run off. Carry on then.
posted by xarnop at 8:56 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way I see it the land you're living in pretty much belongs to the world.

No, the land you're living on is like being punched in the head. If you're going to make an outrageous comparison, get it straight.

But you aren't really interested in making an honest argument, are you?
posted by 2N2222 at 9:05 PM on January 16, 2012


Ok you asked "How responsible am I for writing these wrongs?"

Is the motif in your living room more important than the terrible poverty and addiction and education and life issues facing many native people?

Which is more important? How responsible is anyone for valuing human welfare over their living room motif or a cute dress?

I have my answer, you can ask your conscience for yours.
posted by xarnop at 9:11 PM on January 16, 2012


Can't make sparkling wine and call it Champagne unless it's from that area. Can't make item with Coke logo on it without leasing rights from Coca-Cola Company. Can't make panties with native patterns and call it "Navajo". It's pretty much that simple.
posted by _paegan_ at 9:12 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think xarnop has made some very honest and enlightening arguments in this thread and I particularly found this article linked by xarnop earlier very interesting and educational. If you read it, it explains that even native people who think about this subject a lot are perplexed about what's offensive appropriation and what's not, and that it varies, and that's what's so difficult about this topic.

But yes, in this particular incident, it seems that the very specific issue is that Urban Outfitters violated Navajo copyright in naming their designs.
posted by sweetkid at 9:19 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is the motif in your living room more important than the terrible poverty and addiction and education and life issues facing many native people?

Which is more important? How responsible is anyone for valuing human welfare over their living room motif or a cute dress?

I have my answer, you can ask your conscience for yours.


But neither I, nor the Indian motif curtains in my kitchen are responsible for the ongoing woes of tribal life. Trying to burden my conscience over it would be a mistake. All the gnashing of teeth over it won't make it so.

I think xarnop has made some very honest and enlightening arguments in this thread and I particularly found this article linked by xarnop earlier very interesting and educational. If you read it, it explains that even native people who think about this subject a lot are perplexed about what's offensive appropriation and what's not, and that it varies, and that's what's so difficult about this topic.

I read that article (I could swear it was posted just a couple months ago). I think it backs up the point I made that these things kinda belong to the world now. The same goes for art, music, etc. Things cross pollinate all the time. That is the way humans work. To say that only Native Americans should do Native American styled stuff sounds like the equally ridiculous idea that only Africa Americans should play jazz.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:27 PM on January 16, 2012


2N2222: "It seems the problem here is the use of the word "Navajo" by UO. "

No, that's not the problem, that's one of the legal issues being considered for use as a legal mechanism to address the larger sociological issue, which is appropriation and/or exploitation of a U.S. indigenous culture. In this case, UO was stupid enough to pick a fight with one of the largest tribes in the US, a tribe which happens to have a strong economic base with enough resources to be able to fight back against a major corporation by putting together a cease and desist. By contrast, I know many other tribes still strugging to build an economic base that are still struggling to be able to fund their tribal governments, much less defend something like this.

But I can understand a need to try to simplify and reduce the whole argument to a trademark issue, because it's much easier to wrap one's head around.
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:30 PM on January 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


No, that's not the problem, that's one of the legal issues being considered for use as a legal mechanism to address the larger sociological issue, which is appropriation and/or exploitation of a U.S. indigenous culture.

Really? Because your explanation sounds like an extrapolation of the trademark issue. Namely that trademark abuse equals unfair exploitation, and without the trademark abuse, there is not much of a case to be made against UO. Or is this mistaken? If UO had not described the items to sound like they were affiliated with the Navajo, would there still be a credible threat of action against them?
posted by 2N2222 at 9:40 PM on January 16, 2012


But I can understand a need to try to simplify and reduce the whole argument to a trademark issue, because it's much easier to wrap one's head around.

Yes; the modern world runs on rules and policies rather than personal judgment, and so any discussion of change has to be formulated those terms. If the answer is that no new rules need to be made, only that people should use their judgment, then nothing will change.
posted by Pyry at 9:50 PM on January 16, 2012


"But neither I, nor the Indian motif curtains in my kitchen are responsible for the ongoing woes of tribal life. Trying to burden my conscience over it would be a mistake. All the gnashing of teeth over it won't make it so. "

So.. if you didn't directly cause the suffering of another... you can just witness their suffering and watch? No ethical responsability toward your fellow humans? I mean if that's your position then it's yours to make.

I personally can see why a people who watch themselves and their members suffer while the immigrant populations who took over and profited continue to say "Why should I care about those native people, who cares? I got mine, that's what I care about, let em suffer!"

The point isn't whether YOU caused the suffering. The point is you DON'T CARE about their suffering. You aren't interested in even learning about the issues and whether your awareness of specific issues could make life better for a people who you have been given a lot of input have some serious struggles. And if you're american, the entire cultural benefits you experience have come at a devastating cost to native people they are still paying. Why would you NOT care about that? You seem to be saying you just want to profit from the theme to get nice curtains. That intent would not demonstrate celebrating native culture or people but rather being more concerned with your curtains than the realities of human beings.

The idea of cultural appropriation is that people from one group use cultural themes from another group for their own gain with out actually caring about the real emotions and issues facing the human beings in that culture at all-- or how they may be participating in a culture that is causing harm to people of the culture whose thematic elements they want to use for thematic purposes.

Pryr-- I hope you are wrong about that. I hope human beings can be more for each other than what is dictated by the law. But I also hope for heaven so...
posted by xarnop at 10:11 PM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Pyry: "Yes; the modern world runs on rules and policies rather than personal judgment, and so any discussion of change has to be formulated those terms. If the answer is that no new rules need to be made, only that people should use their judgment, then nothing will change."

Fair enough. But I would counter that policy is nothing more than collective personal judgments of the people providing the rationale behind the rules. That's where sociology comes into play. You can't make new law or change existing law without changing the underlying policy. Otherwise we'd still be living in a world where segregation is the norm.

I'm not arguing that the trademark issue isn't important, I'm just arguing that it's a red herring. There are larger, deeper questions of law in play, e.g. whether and to what extent indigenous people have a property interest in their own self-determination.
posted by Dr. Zira at 11:07 PM on January 16, 2012


So.. if you didn't directly cause the suffering of another... you can just witness their suffering and watch? No ethical responsability toward your fellow humans? I mean if that's your position then it's yours to make.

This is nonsense. If I don't buy Native American style curtains at all, am I absolved of my ethical responsibility? If I buy two Navajo-made rugs, does that mean I care more about their suffering than you? You don't mind if I lord it over you, for, well, forever, do you? Can such self satisfaction really be bought so easily?

The idea of cultural appropriation is that people from one group use cultural themes from another group for their own gain with out actually caring about the real emotions and issues facing the human beings in that culture at all-- or how they may be participating in a culture that is causing harm to people of the culture whose thematic elements they want to use for thematic purposes.

Making Native Americans into such special snowflakes seems to do them a disservice. The real harm I see to Native Americans involves the way the government deals with tribes, and the way tribes deal among themselves, and with their own. Really not much to do with appropriation.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:18 AM on January 17, 2012


There are larger, deeper questions of law in play, e.g. whether and to what extent indigenous people have a property interest in their own self-determination.

This sounds like a particularly murky rabbit hole to venture down. Particularly since property interests for individuals and collective groups are already codified reasonably well in existing IP law. Or do you argue in favor of special circumstances to apply in the case of Native Americans?
posted by 2N2222 at 12:21 AM on January 17, 2012


2N2222 wrote: property interests for individuals and collective groups are already codified reasonably well in existing IP law. Or do you argue in favor of special circumstances to apply in the case of Native Americans?

The point of IP law is generally to solve social problems (i.e., blasphemous publications, struggling authors, Disney's revenues) by creating legal rights. According to Dr Zira this was the motive behind the special form of property created by the IACA. And (at least outside the USA) there are lots of special forms of IP that are hard to fit into the paradigms of patent, trademark, and copyright. Controlled appellations, for example, exist to protect a concept rather than any particular producer or group of producers.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:39 AM on January 17, 2012


My Tibetan friends love it when they see Tibetan-inspired clothing and stuff in stores.

My Tibetan husband gets mighty pissed off.
posted by taff at 12:40 AM on January 17, 2012


The real harm I see to Native Americans involves the way the government deals with tribes, and the way tribes deal among themselves, and with their own. Really not much to do with appropriation.

You haven't read much (if any?) history about Native American issues. "The way the government deals with tribes" = "appropriation". On so many levels, it's staggering.

Making Native Americans into such special snowflakes seems to do them a disservice.

The government had a stated policy of "Kill the Indian, save the man". Maybe you can start there.
posted by fraula at 1:22 AM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


(I should point out that for women under the age of 75 in Australia, when you say "panties" we hear "I am a paedophile". )
posted by taff at 1:53 AM on January 17, 2012


Some of y'all write as if this was a brand new subject that had never occurred to anyone before.

There is a vast legal, scholarly, and political literature on this subject, mere acquaintance with which would reveal the utter ignorance of many comments in this thread.

I suggest starting with Michael Brown's important 2004 book, *Who Owns Native Culture?* (which is global in scope, as these issues affect indigenous peoples everywhere).

It's really shocking to see the cavalier ignorance and outright racism in some of the comments above.

The USA was founded on genocide. You can't dismiss that.
posted by spitbull at 4:21 AM on January 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't want to live in a narrow little cultural box defined by my ancestral culture, and I'm not even sure that I could.

Who (other than you) is advancing this argument?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:56 AM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


It seems to me that if you wear the iconography and art of a culture you're putting yourself in a relationship with that culture along with the messy and complicated politics that are involved. And could mean anything from starting a conversation to being told that you're doing it wrong.

But, the same is true of iconic dress within our culture.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:44 AM on January 17, 2012


" If I don't buy Native American style curtains at all, am I absolved of my ethical responsibility?"

Of course not. The deeper issue is the fact that you don't care at all. The secondary issue is how further cold it is to not have any interest in empowering and assisting fellow humans in your own country (if you are US based?) in need because of barbaric acts that destroyed a people whose land you now enjoy as your own--- while using themes that remind you of that culture and STILL not wanting to know more or help or care. The fact that you can look at those curtains and not think about what those symbols meant to a people now suffering and NOT feel compassion, empathy or any desire to help at all simply magnifies the lengths you will go to not care about others in need and simply use their cultural themes without caring.

The issue is not whether you have the curtains. The issue is that it's hurtful to not even care. The fact that you have the curtains and still don't care simply magnifies that reality.

This thread featured a native person talking about their complex feelings about a culturing trend appropriating themes that have become meaningful to her people without a genuine desire to learn about the people it has been so important to. To know what people among them are facing, what kinds of goals exist, what could be done by the outside world to help. What hurts is the the not caring is so deep that one can walk around with a native themed shirt in a country where the people it meant so much to still suffer and still not even care. Just say "This is cute! Native culture themes, yeah that's hip!"

And that when a thread like this happens instead of listening you jump to defend how you should't have to care or take any action for the well being of others ever!! If that is your first thought every time you hear a condition of suffering in the world--- or of entire groups of people in difficult circumstance-- your first reaction is "No way I shouldn't have to care! I like their designs though I think I'll use that"

If you don't see how thinking this way is hurtful then I don't think I can do any more to explain it to you.
posted by xarnop at 5:49 AM on January 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


2N2222: " Or do you argue in favor of special circumstances to apply in the case of Native Americans?"

I'm not just arguing for that, I've spent a considerable amount of time in this thread trying to explain to you that that is the case as a matter of law. There is a two hundred year old body of federal law enacted especially to address the issues of federal Indian law. It's what I do for a living.
posted by Dr. Zira at 5:55 AM on January 17, 2012 [8 favorites]


This is probably just an accident of world choice, but the word "fetish" was originally used to describe sacred items. Still is, in anthropology. It's that kind of sacred object that is considered to have some specific supernatural power, so yarmulke count (lets you talk about God without angering Him), but rosaries don't (helps you remember a particular prayer). So fetishizing these sacred designs might simply be redundant... though, then again, they might have taken a fetish with one power and given it a completely unrelated one, which is probably even more offensive.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:59 AM on January 17, 2012


This is so directly a result of white people literally forcing natives into punitive Christian retraining schools and harvesting native children from the tribes to get the heathen out of them.

They did such a good job with the Scots that it's almost impossible to reconstruct the original religion. The ancient language barely hangs on after hundreds of years of suppression, which also included laws that made it illegal to wear tartan. The goal of those laws was to crush Gaelic culture and they did an amazing job, such a good job that the culture became Urban Outfitted-ized in the Victorian era. The English hipsters of that era were really into tartans and romantic poems about Scottish warriors.
posted by melissam at 8:59 AM on January 17, 2012


> It's not just a question of intellectual property as a matter of law; it's a question of cultural
> sensitivity and appropriateness as a matter of morality. Unfortunately, there is frequently a huge
> gap between a lawful action and moral action

Also complicated, in the cultural sensitivity/appropriateness domain, by there being as many different opinions as there are moralizers.


> which also included laws that made it illegal to wear tartan. The goal of those laws was to
> crush Gaelic culture

Or, more directly, to discourage further rebellion by the Highland clans after the defeat of the '45.
posted by jfuller at 10:33 AM on January 17, 2012


Well, thanks, but every morning I have to get dressed, and this issue doesn't just apply to this dress. What about the scarf my friend brought me from Turkey? My ikat skirt? How about food? I cook a fair amount of Indian food, because I shared cooking duties with my Bengali roommate for six years. Is that appropriation? Would it be if I were British, rather than USian?

Are you really asking? It seems like you're just coming up with random stuff that you feel defensive about or that we couldn't possibly object to. Maybe you should do some research about Turkish scarfs or Indian culinary appropriation on your own because I'm not willing to play this game where I have to condemn or absolve you of guilt over every single thing in your house/closet.

I mean, you could really be asking because you have trouble getting dressed in the morning, but it seems more like defensiveness and anger at being called out.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:39 AM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Use of the word 'Navajo' leads unwary consumers to think they're buying native-made goods.

Forgive my density, but are there people out there who actually think that these items were made by Native Americans? Are people really that foolish and misinformed?
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 11:32 AM on January 17, 2012


Whenever the question is some version of "Are [some number of] people really so stupid as to believe [thing]?" the answer will always be "Yes."
posted by rtha at 11:42 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


are there people out there who actually think that these items were made by Native Americans?

As rtha notes, sure there are.

But the legal question, is, I think, "COULD the descriptor lead people to think that" and the answer to that is unequivocally "Yup".
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:53 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"My culture getting auctioned off for profit doesn't actually rob me of my culture."

I see what you did there but we're not talking about infinitely replicable MP3s on Bittorent. Culture bleeds. When your identity is misappropriated, it diminishes you because it misrepresents you. It distorts how others perceive you. Being surrounded by contradictory images will distort how developing youth in your culture see themselves. When your culture is a minority culture and it is misrepresented by the majority culture, you are seriously outvoiced. Now, whenever you try to exert your identity, you will be assailed by self-taught experts who will cite the full force of majority culture (they will say, "it's common sense") to tell you who you are.

In fact this entire discussion is full of self-taught experts who can't be bothered to sit back and listen to real, tangible experience and try to understand a new perspective without forcing hypothetical debate.

Some people live their entire lives debating with others who question their identity. I choose to not contribute to that and when I inadvertently offend others (which is somewhat inevitable because we can't all be cultural sensitivity experts with regards to all cultures), instead of forcing a debate, I will listen and take consideration. Even if the call-out was questionable, I still come out enriched because we can all stand to practice a little sympathetic listening from time to time.
posted by Skwirl at 12:48 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you really asking? It seems like you're just coming up with random stuff that you feel defensive about or that we couldn't possibly object to. Maybe you should do some research about Turkish scarfs or Indian culinary appropriation on your own because I'm not willing to play this game where I have to condemn or absolve you of guilt over every single thing in your house/closet.
No, I'm asking it because I generally am in favor of cultural exchange, even though it's fraught with complicated power relations and the potential for exploitation. I think most people's lives would kind of suck if they didn't have access to African-diaspora-derived pop music, for instance, even though much of that music wouldn't exist without historical and current oppression of members of the African diaspora. I think most of us eat and enjoy food to which we only have access because of specific forms of oppression. I'm not sure that my grocery store would have a big Mexican food aisle if the US had dealt fairly with Mexico over the past couple of centuries, because I'm not sure the Mexican population of my city would be here if there were more economic opportunities in Mexico. But there it is, and although I hate the unequal power relations that made it possible, I'm glad for the Mexican food aisle, because otherwise this is the land of the tater tot casserole. (Not that there's anything wrong with that....) A lot of pretty awesome things (gumbo, jazz, rock and roll, large chunks of the American literary canon) are rooted in cultural exchanges that were unequal, oppressive, sometimes downright horrifying. So what do we do with that?

I'm not saying that I think that "Navajo panties" are fine. I'm just not sure how the anti-appropriation line works in practice, especially if we acknowledge oppression other than that of Native Americans.
posted by craichead at 4:10 PM on January 17, 2012


I think that if you wear ___ you open yourself to a conversation with a wide variety of people for whom ___ might have very different and important cultural meanings. That might range from, "it's great that you show solidarity to our cause" to "I'd rather you didn't use it in that way as a cultural outsider." Perhaps instead of demanding an a priori list, it would be better to listen in those conversations as they occur, and make your own decision about what you consider to be most appropriate.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:56 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also the purpose of a lot of criticism of the politics of fashion and media isn't necessarily to say, "that's bad, and you're a bad person for doing it" but "hey, this is interesting, perhaps we should have a conversation about it."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:59 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Perhaps instead of demanding an a priori list,
I wasn't demanding an a priori list. I was trying to point out that appropriation is everywhere and totally woven in to the fabric of modernity and is pretty much unavoidable. And you can be as sanctimonious as you want, but I promise you that you do it, too, because we all do. How to deal with that is not an easy question. It's easy to say that UO's "Navajo panties" are horrible and over some sort of bright line. But the other stuff? I don't know.
posted by craichead at 6:31 PM on January 17, 2012


The answer is possibly to look into how to behave ethically toward other cultures by being aware of their causes and listening to their voices instead of only using their culture for the aesthetic?
posted by xarnop at 7:08 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


The answer is possibly to look into how to behave ethically toward other cultures by being aware of their causes and listening to their voices instead of only using their culture for the aesthetic?
I'm thinking you probably don't research the motifs on every item of clothing you own and determine whether they've been appropriated from cultures whose oppression you're currently implicated in. I mean, if you do, that's really great, and I'd love to know what sources you use. But I bet you don't. So your sanctimony seems a little cheap.
posted by craichead at 7:44 PM on January 17, 2012


It's not about research and sanctimony, it's about being respectful when the issue is presented to you. Of course we all commit these offenses without knowing about it. I don't think anyone is saying that they're perfect in this regard.

xarnop has presented a lot of very thoughtful commentary and links to very useful articles about this topic, I believe in the genuine hope that people will learn about this issue and think about it. I don't think xarnop would have posted all this at length if they just wanted to feel superior. That would be a lot less work.

In my parents' Indian culture (from India), women wear certain specific necklaces when they get married. If I saw someone randomly wearing that necklace who wasn't a married Indian woman wearing it for that purpose, I wouldn't hate them for it, but I might let them know it's significance. If they just shrugged it off and said, well, cultures get appropriated, I'd be pretty annoyed. I wouldn't try to shame them into not wearing it, but I'd be frustrated that someone just didn't care about something that was so important to my family and that really means something in my culture.

I wouldn't wear such a necklace. I'm not married and I wasn't given it as part of a marriage ceremony. All people are asking is that you think of the significance of these things. It's very hurtful not to do so.
posted by sweetkid at 8:01 PM on January 17, 2012


I might let them know it's significance.

its significance, I meant. Sorry.
posted by sweetkid at 8:05 PM on January 17, 2012


So your sanctimony seems a little cheap.

I dunno that I'm hearing sanctimony. As you acknowledge, it's a complicated, layered issue that mostly doesn't play well with "bright line here!" I mean, there is no simple "that t-shirt is okay, those earrings are not."

As you said: It's easy to say that UO's "Navajo panties" are horrible and over some sort of bright line. But the other stuff? I don't know.

Nobody knows. Or, perhaps, everyone knows a little something different, and when it comes to you (general you) deciding what to wear, the best you can do is step lightly and thoughtfully.
posted by rtha at 8:52 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fair enough. If someone told me I was wearing a marriage necklace and that it was hurtful for unmarried women to wear it, I'd stop wearing it. But I don't think there's any consensus about what's appropriation, because I've personally witnessed fairly heated arguments among Indians and Indian-Americans about whether it's appropriation when non-Desis listen to Bollywood music or wear salwar kameez or do yoga. I have an Indian friend who gets really angry at the entire idea that Indian cultures need to be protected from appropriation. She says that the whole idea is paternalistic and that in the US the only cultures that are afforded protection from appropriation are those that are considered weak and pathetic. India is not weak, she says, and doesn't need anyone's protection. One of the things that irks me about the appropriation discussion is that it tends to present cultures as monolithic and say that you can "listen to people from the culture" to decide whether something is offensive. But in fact, if you listened to my friend, you'd end up offending a lot of people, because she's a bit of a willful iconoclast. (And she'd tell you that some of those people ought to be offended, because they're religious fanatics or bigots or oversensitive jerks. But I'm still not going to carry around a Ganesh tote bag, even if she says it's totally ok.)

And I mean, in an ideal world we'd all have a deep understanding of every culture and be able to make informed decisions for ourselves about all this stuff. But I don't think very many people are able to do that, because nobody is an expert on everything. And if you're not an expert on everything, then you're in some pretty complex territory: the danger of appropriation, but also the danger of appointing ethnic spokespeople without knowing for whom they speak, or of paternalism, or of denying people your business because you worry that you'll be guilty of appropriation or exoticizing if you buy or use the things they produce. (I've been guilty of that last one, fwiw.) From the point of view of a consumer of culture, it's way more complicated than just saying "don't appropriate, you jerk."
posted by craichead at 9:11 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the things that irks me about the appropriation discussion is that it tends to present cultures as monolithic and say that you can "listen to people from the culture" to decide whether something is offensive.

Well, yeah, I agree with this. Most of the things I might find offensive my brother wouldn't care about. He just doesn't care about most of this stuff at all. That's just in one family. Plus India has a ton of different cultures and cultural practices, and different experiences with the various Indian expat cultures, plus class differences, on and on. People within that culture piss each other off all the time.

Indians and Indian-Americans about whether it's appropriation when non-Desis listen to Bollywood music or wear salwar kameez or do yoga.


This is kind of interesting. I do yoga, and though I'm not the most plugged-in person to my culture ever, I do recognize some of the Sanskrit music and chants as things that were done in religious ceremonies and gatherings when I was a kid. I don't hate it, but I can understand why someone who's actually a practicing Hindu might find fault with it and be upset.

The only time it really bothers me is when people who aren't from Indian origin families tell me I'm not doing something Indian enough because they went on some trip for three weeks and learned some practice and now think I use the wrong words, or they're amazed I don't know some Bollywood song. My experience with my culture is very personal, and that's just annoying to me. I wouldn't do that to someone else.

It's just that people have lifetime histories with these kinds of things, and sometimes feel when they see these things that the long experience they've had hasn't been respected.

( sorry for this Asian Indian derail...)
posted by sweetkid at 9:26 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Given how fluid and context-sensitive cultural appropriation is, I think that instead of describing it as a property issue, it might work better to use the vocabulary of postmodernism, which is most specifically intended for dealing with fluid context-sensitive issues.

When you wear an icon from another culture without reference to the original culture, you're recontextualizing and most likely decontextualizing it. If this ends up giving an impression entirely different from the original, you have detourned the icon. This is usually offensive, which doesn't automatically mean you shouldn't do it, but you should probably reserve it for deserving targets, eg. Stephen Colbert detourning various Republican Party memes.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:50 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess my hope was simply that there would more listening to native people, many of whom clearly are not enjoying their culture being appropriated-- listen to why, look into the issues, and see if there is any way to be aware and willing to make decisions based on that awareness to understand native issues and take any action we might be able to to improve the situation.

And less: But oppression, exploitation, cultural appropriation and bad stuff happens all the time and thinking about this is just really inconvenient for me. Caring about others feelingsor social causes is a real drag when I'm shopping.

I don't think the goal is for anyone to look in their closet and go "DOH-- that shirt has a hint of Japanese art on it, I've totally fucked up!"

But more about, if a Japanese person tells you the history of trade and their feelings and how shirts with Japanese themes made by non Japanese are hurting sales of Japanese goods and an economic crisis is occeruing in Japan (hypothetical)--- I would just listen and say "Oh, maybe I next time I'll try to by art/clothes made by Japanese people themelves if possible to support their struggling economy, or find out if there are any other ways I can be a positive influence on this situation"

This conversation could have focused on native issues and why these laws ARE so important to native people, I was disheartened at how much of the conversation became "But listening to that is inconvenient and it's in the past and blahblahblah here's why I it's inconvenient for me to care about this"

I do not personally want anyone to focus on guilt over past purcheses, I just hope for people to take this opportunity to be a little more aware of native issues and look for opportunities to learn more and be open to making positive change in their communities rather than shutting down conversations about being involved in making positive change for native people because "It's not my DIRECT fault and so I shouldn't have to care!"

I thank anyone who has listened and I don't speak directly for natives but would point anyone interested to do more reading of varied opinions from people who are native.
posted by xarnop at 8:14 AM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older Am I wasting my time organizing e-mail? A study o...  |  Last week, three founders of p... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments