When Sasha Houston Brown walked into an Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis last weekend, she found the perfect way to mark Columbus Day on Monday -- creating possible legal trouble for the hipster clothing chain in the process.

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 Monday on the website Racialicious and has since been picked up by Jezebel, Time magazine, ABC News and other heavily traveled sites, and is sparking online commenting debates wherever it goes.

Ed Looram, director of public relations for Urban Outfitters, told the Star Tribune via e-mail Wednesday afternoon 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.

Trademark trouble ahead?

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 name "Navajo" is trademarked by the tribe.

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 Wednesday 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.

While the blog Native Appropriations posted excerpts from a cease and desist letter that it said was sent to Urban Outfitters by the Navajo Nation in June, the attorney general of the Navajo Nation sent out a news release Thursday stating that the company had contacted Urban Outfitters "only very recently" and that "the Nation is cautiously optimistic that it can discuss this issue with the Urban Outfitters Corporation and convince it to adopt another name and trademark for its products."
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. I'm not against people wearing clothes that have native-tribe connotations.

"But Minneapolis has one of the largest native populations in the country, and there's no shortage of vendors who sell goods they have made. You can go down Franklin Avenue and pick up all sorts of authentic clothes and jewelry."

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.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046