When Sasha Houston Brown walked into an Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis recently, what she found created possible legal trouble for the hipster clothing chain.
Appalled by a line of products labeled "Navajo," Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux nation, wrote an open letter to CEO Glen Senk and accused the retailer of making a "mockery" of American Indian culture and identity and asking that the line be pulled from shelves.
"I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as 'fashion,' " she wrote, citing "tacky" products including "Navajo Hipster Panty, Navajo Print Fabric-Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace and Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt."
The letter was posted this week on the website Racialicious and has since been picked up by Jezebel, Time magazine, ABC News and other heavily traveled sites. It's sparking online commenting debates wherever it goes.
Ed Looram, director of public relations for Urban Outfitters, told the Star Tribune via email that the company has "no plans to modify or discontinue" any of the Navajo products.
"The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term 'Navajo' have been cycling through fashion, fine art and design for the last few years," Looram wrote.
But the matter may go far beyond appeasing one consumer. As Brown also noted in her letter, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 prohibits selling products through marketing that falsely suggests they were made by American Indians. Also, the tribe has trademarked the name "Navajo."
Brown, 24, works as an adviser for the American Indian Success Program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Reached at her office, Brown said she spoke with Brian Lewis, an attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice in Arizona. Lewis told her that Urban Outfitters failed to go through the proper legal system required to use the term "Navajo," she said.
Looram said Urban Outfitters has not been contacted by the Navajo Nation. But the blog Native Appropriations, which focuses on "images of indigenous peoples, languages and cultures in everyday life," wrote in September that the Navajo Nation attorney general had sent Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter.
"When an entity attempts to falsely associate its products with the Nation and its products, the Nation does not regard this as benign or trivial," the blog reported the letter as saying.
Brown acknowledged that the law is rarely put into practice, but Brown hopes the attention her letter is getting raises public awareness not only of the law, but why labeling a product "hipster Navajo panty" might be considered culturally offensive.
"It's symptomatic of a larger issue, not so much about this brand specifically," she said. "It's an example of the passive, subtle racism and cultural appropriation that is ongoing."
Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters is no stranger to controversy, most recently coming under fire for selling a T-shirt featuring a sexually suggestive pose by an underage female model.