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Navajo Nation and Urban Outfitters Reach Agreement on Appropriation

Nearly five years after the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters the two parties have reached an agreement.

Nearly five years after the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters claiming the clothing retailer appropriated the Navajo name and tribal patterns, the two parties have reached an agreement.

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The settlement, signed by a district court judge in September, marks an amicable end to a bitter legal dispute that erupted in 2012 when Urban Outfitters and its subsidiaries, which include Anthropologie and Free People, began using the Navajo name on its products. Items included apparel, outerwear and jewelry labeled as “Navajo” or “Navaho.” The retailers also marketed a liquor flask decorated with Navajo patterns and a “Navajo hipster panty,” both of which sparked outrage on the Navajo Nation where alcohol is prohibited and modesty is paramount.

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In a statement released November 17, Navajo President Russell Begaye announced that a settlement was reached and that the two parties will collaborate to market authentic Navajo jewelry. Urban Outfitters’ portfolio includes more than 2,300 specialty stores, catalogs and websites in the United States, Canada and Europe.

“We applaud [Urban Outfitters] for acknowledging the validity of the Navajo Nation trademark and are glad we have settled this matter,” Begaye said in his statement. “The Navajo Nation is proud of its strong history and welcomes working in collaboration with [Urban Outfitters] and other retailers to highlight our unique culture.”

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Although most of the details remain confidential, the settlement dismisses all claims with prejudice. The Navajo Nation and Urban Outfitters each agreed to pay their own expenses and attorney fees.

The settlement, finalized September 29, calls for the parties to work together under a license and supply agreement to create and market authentic Navajo products.

“We take the rights of artists and designers seriously, both in protecting our own and in respecting the rights of others,” Azeez Hayne, general counsel for Urban Outfitters, said a prepared statement. “As a company, (Urban Outfitters) has long been inspired by the style of Navajo and other American Indian artists and looks forward to the opportunity to work with them on future collaborations.”

The dispute began in February 2012, when the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, claiming Urban Outfitters was unlawfully using the Navajo name. In its original complaint, the tribe argued that the Pennsylvania-based Urban Outfitters was appropriating the Navajo name and tribal patterns, and that it was violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

The tribe holds at least 10 trademarks on its name, covering clothing, footwear, household products, textiles and online retail sales. It has used the name “Navajo” since 1894 and has 86 trademarks registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

By labeling items as “Navajo,” the company and its subsidiaries were in direct competition with Navajo artisans and its tribal arts and crafts enterprise, which is protected by federal law. The labels also deceived and confused potential customers, the tribe’s complaint stated. In its lawsuit, the Navajo Nation also claimed some of the items being sold with the Navajo name were disrespectful to the tribe—including the underwear and the liquor flask.

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Urban Outfitters countered with claims that the Navajo Nation does not own its name, and that American Indian-inspired prints have shown up in the fashion industry for years. It sought a declaration of non-infringement and cancellation of the tribe’s federal trademark registrations, according to court records.

“The term ‘navajo’ is a common, generic term widely used in the industry and by customers to describe a design/style or feature of clothing and clothing accessories, and therefore, is incapable of trademark protection,” the company said in court documents. It argued that the Navajo Nation had not taken action during the years third parties used the term, therefore abandoning its rights to the name.

The company also asserted that it sells “hip clothing and merchandise” to “culturally sophisticated young adults” and in no way competes with Navajo arts and crafts, which generally are not sold in “specialty retail centers, upscale street locations and enclosed malls.”

“Nothing in the title of the store, the layouts of the stores or the manner in which any of the goods are marketed or sold suggests in any way that Urban Outfitters is marketing or selling products supplied by the Navajo Nation,” the company said in court documents. It argued that many other upscale clothing retailers also were marketing American Indian-themed merchandise.

The case gained notoriety around the globe—partly because of the absurdity of the Navajo hipster panty—but also because it raised questions about who can profit from a name. The settlement and promised collaboration may set a precedent when it comes to designers or retailers working with tribes instead of against them.

In his statement, Begaye said the tribe expects companies to seek permission when considering using the Navajo name, designs or motifs.

“We are a proud nation with talented artisans, scientists, lawyers and professionals who together represent the Navajo Nation,” he said. “We believe in protecting our Nation, our artisans, designs, prayers and way of life.”