Recently, Urban Outfitters has been on the “outs” with the Navajo Nation over its use of the Navajo name on products the Nation deems “derogatory and scandalous.” Problems began last year when Urban Outfitters launched a line of Navajo-branded accessories and clothing without the permission of the Navajo Nation (NN), the semi-autonomous Native American-governed territory. Specifically, it was the inclusion of underwear and a hip flask bearing the Navajo name that offended the tribe and prompted the writing of a cease and desist letter to Urban Outfitters.
Although the clothing boutique did remove the “Navajo” name from the line of products bearing Navajo-inspired prints, it appears that subsidiaries continued selling the Navajo-branded items through other channels. As a result, the Navajo Nation filed suit against the retailer for trademark violation and illegal action in accordance with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.
The Nation attempted to trademark the “Navajo” name back in the 1970s but the application was rejected by the United States Patent and Trademark office on grounds that it was too common a name. However, it has since been granted a dozen or so registered trademarks for various product types with the “Navajo” name including clothing, household products, footwear, online retail sales and textiles. Understanding that these trademarks alone may not be strong enough to stand up against Urban Outfitters, the Nation has strengthened its case by also citing the Indian Arts and Crafts Act which states the illegality of selling/producing products as Indian-made when they are not. The lawsuit states, "The fame or reputation of the Navajo name and marks is such that, when the defendant uses the 'Navajo' and 'Navaho' marks with its goods and services, a connection with the Navajo nation is falsely presumed."
Late last year, Ed Looram, Urban Outfitters spokesperson, confirmed the company had no plans to alter their products; "Like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come. The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term 'Navajo' have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years." More recently, he declined to comment further explaining the matter was in the hands of legal counsel.
The Navajo Nation has asserted its trademarks numerous times in the past. Most recently, the organisation successfully barred a French company from using a “Navaho” trademark arguing it was phonetically identical and therefore infringed on its own trademark. The tribe has highlighted roughly two dozen companies they believe to be infringing the Navajo trademark but admit that limited resources prevent them from going after every violation. Historically, the Nation has achieved good results from writing letters as a way to stop many potential lawsuits but decided in this instance to pursue the matter via the courts as both parties could not come to an agreeable understanding.
The Navajo Nation does license its name to businesses and products they deem appropriate and shares in the profits of such items. However, it exercises extreme care in choosing the parties to which it will offer such licensing opportunities. In fact, contributor to the Navajo Times, Bill Donovan, explained that over the past quarter century, the Navajo Nation has become increasingly proactive in setting a series of laws to protect its culture from non-Navajos. It remains to be seen if this most recent legal battle will help the Navajo Nation maintain protection of its culture or possibly open the door for others to profit from its heritage.