A few months ago, Urban Outfitters launched a "Navajo" line of clothing (including, er, Navjoa Hipster Panties). The Navajo Nation sent a C&D, claiming that the company violated the Federal Trade Commission Act and Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 stating that "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.” Urban Outfitters removed the Navajo name but the trend continues in the retail world. Up until a few weeks ago at least, Forever 21 was selling a "Navajo" skirt and their own "Navajo & Lace Hipster" panties. Over at Collector's Weekly, Lisa Hix digs into the popularity and history of fake "Native" fashions. From Collectors Weekly:
In 1895, a woolen mill opened in the Oregon town of Pendleton to sell blankets and robes to nearby Native American tribes. The mill went out of business, but in 1909, brothers Clarence, Roy, and Chauncey Bishop, who came from a family of weavers and entrepreneurs, reopened the facility as Pendleton Woolen Mills."Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans"
Employing the Jacquard loom technology first imported to the U.S. in the 1830s, Pendleton and other new U.S. mills were able to make felted blankets with stunning colors and patterns. Naturally, all the these wool companies looked at the Native American populations, who had at this point adapted wool blankets, often striped or plaid, as a part of their ceremonies and rites of passage, and saw an opportunity.
To Pendleton’s credit, its loom artisan Joe Rawnsley spent a lot of quality time with the local tribes, such as the Nez Perce, to learn what colors and patterns would appeal to them most. As a side note, the Nez Perce most associated with the brand, Chief Joseph, who heroically stood up against the U.S. government for years, had very little involvement with the company. He was photographed by Major Lee Morehouse wearing Pendleton blankets in 1901, but according to Robert J. Christnacht, manager of Pendleton’s home division, that was “the extent of Chief Joseph’s relationship with Pendleton.”
Rawnsley’s early blankets were well-received by the nearby Nez Perce, so the company sent him on a six-month tour of the Southwest, where he lived with Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi to find out what blanket designs those tribes would prefer. He returned with hundreds of ideas. “Baskets, pottery, weavings, and regalia all inspired Joe,” Christnacht says. “Pendleton blanket designs were a blending of the images and colors Joe saw with his own design aesthetic.”
Some might say that Rawnsley was simply inspired by the beauty of Native American arts and crafts, and he hoped to use his Jacquard skills to make beautiful blankets the tribespeople would love. And in that, he succeeded. Others might argue that this was an early and sly version of cultural thievery. It’s a slippery slope.“
“From the beginning Pendleton marketed the blankets to various native communities, but the designs themselves are not authentic,” says Bramlett, a founding member of the Vintage Fashion Guild. “What’s ironic is that the Navajo were making blankets for the white tourist trade, and Pendleton was making blankets to sell to the native communities. That’s kind of a weird twist, but that’s the way it was.
"And the Navajo designs were not even traditional designs,” she continues. “A lot of the motifs that they used were Mexican inspired. Or when traders came to them with oriental rugs, they’d use them as inspiration. So there are oriental motifs in some Navajo weavings, too. It’s just a crazy cross-cultural mix any way you look at it. You’ve got the Pendleton blankets which are a mixture of native and non-native colors and motifs. Then you’ve got the Navajo blankets, which are the same way.”
David Pescovitz is Boing Boing's co-editor/managing partner. He's also a research director at Institute for the Future. On Instagram, he's @pesco.