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Hints of the American Southwest

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An economic and cultural battle

NEW YORK - Ralph Lauren recently premiered his Fall 2004 collection of
suits and dresses. Made of luxury fabrics, such as cashmere and alpaca,
they were accessorized during the fashion show with vintage Navajo
turquoise-and-silver earrings and belts; some of the clothes are also
decorated with excerpts of Navajo textile patterns. Fashion reporters
termed the collection, which will arrive in stores in the months to come,
"masterful."

When Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas, Navajo weaver, saw a photograph in her
local newspaper of the Lauren dress shown at right, she had a different
reaction: "I was stunned. The dress uses a blanket and dress pattern from
the 1800s - something my great-great-great grandmother would have woven -
to show off cleavage. It isn't respectful."

Her objections are both economic and cultural, continued Ornelas, who comes
from a long line of Two Grey Hills weavers. Her two children, both college
students, are carrying on the tradition. "For years, we've battled the
problem of non-Navajos making so-called 'Navajo-inspired' textiles. Several
companies, including Yucca Flats, have imitated rugs of mine that are in
museum collections. People who can't think of their own creative ideas use
ours to further their goal, which is making money. We do want to sell our
work, but we also carry forward a sacred tradition. Weavings are living,
breathing things."

"Unfortunately, intellectual property law doesn't stop either kind of use
described," said Anthony Paonita, an editor at American Lawyer magazine, in
New York City. "The measuring stick is whether or not the buyer will
confuse the item with the original. That wouldn't happen with the Lauren
dresses, which are unlike the originals in many respects. And, if the
'Navajoinspired' textiles are labeled as such and have significant
differences from the originals - such as size or color - a court would
likely find them permissible as well."

So, it's legal - but is it ethical? Certainly, knocking off a textile
design is lower on the outrage meter than, say, OutKast's performance of
"Hey Ya" at the 2004 Grammys, sports teams with demeaning Native nicknames
and mascots, or landscape features that use "squaw" in their names.

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In any case, individual artists and even entire cultures have always traded
influences. The Romans took from the Greeks; the Japanese borrowed from the
Chinese. The Japanese are famously syncretic, absorbing many other customs
into their own. Andy Warhol made a career of appropriating commercial
images - in his legendary painting of a Campbell's tomato-soup can, for
example. Diego Romero, Cochiti Pueblo, decorated a pottery bowl with an
image he calls "Luncheon in the Canyon"; the scene refers to French
impressionist Edouard Manet's provocative painting, "Dejeuner sur L'Herbe."

Even Navajo weavers use each other's work for inspiration. "This goes on
constantly," said Brenda Spencer, Navajo, who has worked in the Wide Ruins
style for 25 years. "When it's geometric, it's hard to say it belongs to
someone. But you have to work with the design to make it your own."

Make it your own: Therein lies the crux of the issue. Behind the most
objectionable portrayals of Native people is the widespread assumption that
they and their cultures are fair game for those in the dominant culture -
like Lauren - who can cherrypick elements to use in their own work. (Of
course, people like the billionaire designer have the power to prevent
infringement on their products.)

Evocations of indigenous imagery - generally explained as "homage" -
pervade American life, even in the 21st century. From the buffalo nickel to
the "Indian" motorcycle, from the Boy Scouts to the state of New Mexico
adopting Zia Pueblo's signature design, references to this continent's
Native people have become shorthand notation for a vague, ever-changing
constellation of attributes.

In contrast, when cultures or artists succeed in transforming a borrowed
image - when they make it their own, in Spencer's terms - it transcends its
original content. It becomes greater than it was. Warhol and Romero
surprise us by putting familiar images in unusual contexts. The soup can
moves from kitchen cupboard to museum wall; a picnic moves from painting to
pottery bowl. With intelligence and humor, these artists ask us, among
other things, to reconsider the boundaries of art. They tell us something
of what it is to be human - to have cultural reference points, but also to
question them.

Similarly, Spencer describes the hard work, temporal and spiritual,
required to create a weaving; in essence, God is in the details, as the
traditional weavers entwine warp and woof, blend colors, and balance
patterns. "For Navajo people, patterns come from within, from the mind and
spirit," Ornelas said. "Some of the weaving you plan, and some develops as
you're working. I learned to weave from my mother, sister, and
grandmothers; it's as though my family comes together in my pieces. Even
now, after my grandmothers and sister have passed on, I can ask them for
help if I'm stuck when sitting at my loom. Then, all of a sudden, there's a
pattern."

When a wealthy partygoer slips on a cashmere dress with a fragment of
Navajo pattern on its hem, she learns nothing of those who originally
developed and wore it. The original idea is diminished, not expanded.
Lauren profits, while dismissing his source. The resonances of a
millennia-old culture become nothing more than, as the press release for
the Fall 2004 collection said, "hints of the American Southwest."