Native Americans and Cultural Appropriation: What You Need To Know

The term “cultural appropriation” has become a buzzword in the fashion and music industry, but not in a good away. From the proliferation of Native American headdresses and feather fashion accessories in Coachella to the Navajo style patterns seen in fashion runways all over the world, these offenses have landed style influencers in hot water over and over again. Who can forget the Navajo design panties by Urban Outfitters that resulted in a long-standing lawsuit?

But what is cultural appropriation? This concept is broader than simply incorporating or “borrowing” certain sacred prints, design elements, and patterns from Native Americans and other indigenous communities. It involves non-recognition and respect of the artistic craftsmanship that has defined each tribe or community. From the Navajo, Crows, the Ojibwe and other tribes, each group has a distinct story that is told in their clothing, jewelry, blankets, and leatherwork.

As a critique to mainstream fashion and music, Native American and other indigenous artists have given voice and representation to their communities by speaking against using their cultural elements as “caricatures.” Some have encouraged partnership between Native and Non-Native collaborators as a responsible way of creating these products.

Simon Fraser University released a publication entitled, “Think Before You Appropriate,” which offers a set of guidelines for designers and product creators. Responsible collaboration is possible, according to the guidebook, when done in a respectful and collaborative manner. The guidebook emphasizes the importance of consultation, attribution, respect for cultural differences, and benefit sharing when collaborating on a project.

There are Intellectual Property laws in certain jurisdictions that protect the rights of individuals against cultural appropriation. These statutes and accord afford some level of protection for traditional creators. However, in some cases, the potentially long, drawn-out, and costly legal process has been a deterrent for indigenous groups to pursue their claims.

As a strategy to protect cultural knowledge and art, some Native American groups have filed for trademarks for certain designs, patterns, and tribal crests in the U.S. Copyright Rights Office. This is to prohibit unethical creators from copying or appropriating their traditional work. As an example, the Navajo Nation has taken the IPR copyright route. In recent years, the Navajo’s traditional weaving designs and patterns have “inspired” copycat products from all over the world. The community and other tribes have trademarked their designs in order to preserve their cultural legacy.