Sunday, May 06, 2012

Co-opting Cultures for Consumer Goods

A post by Lisa Hix on Fresh Type, "Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans," brings up some thought-provoking concerns about co-opting another culture to create art or design for general public consumers. The most recent example of  this was Urban Outfitters which headed into the 2011 holiday season with a "Navajo" line. The result was a lawsuit by the Navajo Nation. The basis of the suit has to do with trademark infringement. From NPR:

"What they did here was they went and sued them on the basis of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which says it's illegal to produce a product that says it's Indian made when it's not Indian made. So the Navajo Nation is saying that the products that the company is producing makes it appear that Navajos had some part in the production of these products and therefore that's against the law."

From the Fresh Type article:

"The problem," says Jessica R. Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa and doctor of Native American studies who teaches at Arizona State University and blogs about Native American fashion designers at Beyond Buckskin, "is that they’re putting it out there as 'This is the native,' or 'This is native-inspired.' So now you have non-native people representing us in mainstream culture. That, of course, gets tiring, because this has been happening since the good old days of the Hollywood Western in the 1930s and '40s, where they hired non-native actors and dressed them up essentially in redface. The issue now is not only who gets to represent Native Americans," Metcalfe says, "but also who gets to profit."

But, as the article continues to explain, this is hardly the first time a culture has been used in products by designers who are not a part of it, for consumers who are also not a part of it.

"For example, the pattern we think of as 'paisley'—now most commonly seen on ties—was once a holy symbol of the Zoroastrians in Persia. And throughout fashion history, designers have been swiping motifs from other cultures—from China and Japan in Victorian times, Egypt in the 1920s, and West Africa and Latin America in the '60s."

I found the story about the long intertwining of the Pendleton company with Native Americans to be fascinating. Also interesting was learning how young Native American fashion designers are using the Pendleton blanket:

"It’s really cool to see how they reinterpret the blanket," Metcalfe says. "For Sho Sho, she’s using very vibrant colors and the bold graphics of the Pendleton blanket and giving it this hip-hop vibe, by making these hoodies for men and women. She's made the wearing blanket something cool for Native Americans to wear again."

Wait a minute. Hip-hop vibe? That's cultural appropriation, too.

Complex issue, isn't it?