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Panel criticizes misuse of ‘Navajo’ symbols

Julia Harris | Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The offensiveness of native symbols used in consumer culture was the topic of a student panel, “Urban Outfitters and the Navajo,” held Tuesday at Saint Mary’s College.

“The idea of ‘playing Indian’ can be as harmless as dressing up, but taking native symbols and characteristics and using them for a purpose outside their intended purpose has been a global issue,” visiting Assistant Professor Gabriel Torres said in the student panel.

Earlier in October, ABC news reported a story of a Native American women outraged by the use of the term ‘Navajo’ representing a line of about two dozen items which sported a recognizable Navajo pattern on a drinking flask and “hipster panties,” claiming the items were racially insensitive to the sacred Navajo culture.

Urban Outfitters was confronted with a legal matter that determined the misnomer violated the Indian Arts and Craft Act of 1990 and could cost the store a fine of up to $1 million. The store promptly removed the term ‘Navajo’ from the line, though the clothing line continued to be sold in Europe under the title.

“At least here in America, we have a chance to understand that the culture is being misrepresented,” junior Mara Scott said. “In Europe, they’ll just assume it’s how Native American people are. It’s like they’re being purposely obtuse.”

Tamara Taylor, the assistant director of Multicultural Services, said that the legal issue limits the opportunity for communication and education. She said that the items in the ‘Navajo’ line, the flask in particular, foster stereotypes that hurt the Native American people.

“They’ve limited the opportunity for dialogue,” she said. “So they remove the name, but what about next time when it happens again? There’s a deeper issue. We can’t move forward with that conversation.”

Students and faculty also discussed present representations of Native American mascots, logos and nicknames nationwide.

“The Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, the mascots become their identity,” associate political science professor Marc Belanger said. “Yes, it’s built off an image, but it’s hard to picture them without that tradition. The tradition argument is very hard to get passed, but outside the realm of public discourse, it is a Native American image. They have the right to control their images and how they are used.”

The Native American Heritage Student Involvement and Multicultural services sponsored the panel. Some students said that the discussion was both enlightening and enriching.

“It was interesting to see different takes on the issue, particularly those of Native American descent,” Scott said.