Urban Outfitters Under Fire for 'Navajo' Collection

A Native American woman criticized the company in an open letter to the CEO.

October 12, 2011, 1:40 PM

Oct. 12, 2011 — -- An open letter by a Native American woman from Minnesota has turned up the heat on the retail chain Urban Outfitters because of a line of "Navajo" items she claims are culturally offensive.

Sasha Houston Brown, 24, decided to take action after walking into an Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis and seeing Navajo-labeled products that disturbed her.

She sent her complaint to the company's CEO by email and conventional mail, saying she was offended by "plastic dreamcatchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns."

Brown told Urban Outfitters CEO Glen T. Senk that the collection was "cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive."

The letter also was posted on the Racialicious blog, a website dedicated to issues at "the intersection of race and pop culture."

"It was the experience of being there and immersed in that setting, surrounded by all of these items, that took this cultural offense and cultural appropriation to another level," Brown told ABCNews.com. "It was just beyond demeaning and inappropriate on a personal and collective level."

A recent search with the term "Navajo" on the Urban Outfitters website brought up 23 items, including the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Navajo Hipster Panty and Staring at Stars Strapless Navajo Dress.

"These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures," Brown wrote to the company.

She claimed that none of the products were made by indigenous nations and that that no native peoples were involved in the design process.

No one from Urban Outfitters has responded to Brown or reached out to her, she said.

In a statement to ABCNews.com, Urban Outfitters public relations director Ed Looram wrote: "The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term 'Navajo' have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years. We currently have no plans to modify or discontinue any of these products."

Looram added that the company is dedicated to inspiring customers and interpreting trends.

Brown said that not only were the company's items offensive, but they may also be illegal.

She claimed they violated the Federal Trade Commission Act and Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which "prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts produced within the United States" and states the following:

"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."

Brown sent Senk the letter on Columbus Day, which she called an "ironic holiday."

She is an academic advisor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College where she works with the American Indian Success Program. Her father is of the Dakota people and Brown also identifies herself as part of the Santee Sioux Nation. Her mother is Russian and Jewish.

She is happy that her letter has initiated a national conversation and emphasized that there are larger issues to be discussed, in addition to the problem with Urban Outfitters.

"As native peoples, we've been robbed of so much -- our land, life ways, culture," Brown said. "My issue isn't with just specifically Urban Outfitters, but symptomatic of larger and more pervasive issues in our society, how we recognize and interact and treat First Nation people here."

In the letter, she called for Urban Outfitters to pull the clothing line from stores and apologize to indigenous peoples of North America.

She believes this could be a big step in gaining more respect for her culture, which she said is rarely mentioned in mainstream cultural conversation.

"I think the company does have an opportunity right now to do what is ethnically and morally right by acknowledging their wrongs and pulling the line, but also apologizing and owing up to the fact that [they] did clearly engage in this level of corporate appropriation," Brown said. "I hope people start critically thinking and integrating into their social consciousness that we are here, we do still exist."