Navajo Tribe Sues Urban Outfitters for Trademark Infringement

By Joseph Mandour on March 12, 2012

indians-thumb-200x150-37600 San Diego – Months after issuing Urban Outfitters a cease and desist letter asking it to stop using the “Navajo” name on its products, American Indian tribe Navajo Nation has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the retailer.

In its lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation is accusing Urban Outfitters of infringing on its tribal name and violating the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Enacted in 1990, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act makes it illegal to sell arts and crafts in a manner that would suggest they are authentically made by American Indians when they are not.

The Navajo Nation owns approximately ten registered trademarks on the “Navajo” name that cover clothing, footwear, online retail sales, household products, and textiles.

Proud of its heritage and intent on protecting what it believes as its most valuable asset, Navajo Nation issued a cease and desist letter in 2011 after Urban Outfitters launched a line of Navajo-branded clothing and accessories. Specific items in the retailer’s line included underwear and a liquor flask, which the tribe insisted was “derogatory and scandalous,” since the sale and consumption of alcohol is forbidden on the reservation which spans parts of northeast Arizona, southeast Utah, and northwest New Mexico.

Urban Outfitters responded by removing the product names from its website, however the tribe maintains that products consisting of the Navajo name are still being sold through other company brands like Free People, in catalogs, and retail stores.

As of late last month, there were no signs of the word “Navajo” on any products at an Urban Outfitters store in Arizona, however the company’s website features several pieces of jewelry labeled vintage Navajo with turquoise beads and silver. In particular, a description for a handmade cuff indicates that it was originally sold at an Indian trading post and has an etched arrow detailing with a “sterling” stamp on the back.

In an email sent last year after receiving the cease and desist letter, a spokesman for Urban Outfitters said the retailer had no plans of altering its products and defended its actions by claiming the Native American-inspired trend had been used on and off in fashion, fine art, and design for years.

The Navajo tribe has been licensing its name to other businesses in exchange for a share of their profits but insists that there are about two dozen companies that are using the Navajo name without its authorization or any reimbursement.

The Navajo Nation is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a permanent injunction barring Urban Outfitters from using the “Navajo” name or any variations on its products.

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