Keep My Heritage Off Your Underwear!

Keep My Heritage Off Your Underwear!

Pop Culture March 20, 2012 / By Erich Matthes
Keep My Heritage Off Your Underwear!

For whom and how is it appropriate to use cultural heritage symbols?

Here’s a sentence I never expected to write: tensions are rising between Urban Outfitters and the Navajo Nation. Following on a recent trend of Navajo-inspired fashion, UO has been marketing a series of products in the same vein, some of which use the Navajo mark and/or the Navajo name. The most sensational culprits are a pair of underwear that is patterned with a likeness of the Navajo mark, as well as a flask with a Navajo-inspired pattern (yikes).

In response, the Navajo Nation has brought suit against UO for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which prohibits the marketing or sale of items that are falsely represented as being produced by Indian Nations. Not being a lawyer, I’m going to steer clear of discussing the legal issues in this case (though I will note that laws protecting the further exploitation of historically oppressed peoples seem to me a very good thing). Rather, independent of the legal details, I want to ask the following: how should marks and symbols associated with cultural heritage be used, and for whom is it appropriate to use them?

I will assume for the purposes of this discussion that objects/symbols/etc. with value or meaning can be used in appropriate and inappropriate ways. For example, we might say it would be inappropriate to use pristine vinyl LPs as Frisbees (if the record is scratched beyond repair, then all bets are off). This is not to say that doing so is morally wrong, nor to make any claims about how un/important a transgression it would be—it is just to say that tossing functional LPs across a field would be an inappropriate response to the kind of value they have. 

Symbols that are representative of a cultural group’s heritage or identity are often viewed by group members as a source of pride, worthy of respect. As with a nation’s flag, a symbol can stand in as metonymy for the group itself. Thus it isn’t hard to see why a group might take offense when outsiders appropriate their cultural symbols as decorations for underwear. However, the fact that non-group members are the culprits here might simply serve to accentuate the misuse of the Navajo mark—it is not obvious that it would be appropriate for Navajos to produce or market such underwear either. This is a thorny issue, though. It is common for people to believe that group-membership insulates them from offenses that would attend the very same action when performed by non-group members. For instance, how often have you heard someone tell an offensive cultural joke, and then follow up by confidently declaring that it’s OK, because he or she is a member of the targeted culture? I won’t attempt to adjudicate this matter here, but it at least seems plausible that if a given symbol is a source of pride and respect then it might be cheapened by use as adornment for underwear, no matter who is using it in that way (assuming, of course, a context-sensitive assessment of how undergarments are viewed, which might vary from culture to culture, and be revised, challenged, or rejected).

But if there are inappropriate ways to use a cultural symbol, no matter who the culprit is, are there also appropriate ways to use a cultural symbol independent of group membership? In an earlier post, I mentioned Dennis Dutton’s distinction between nominal and expressive authenticity. Something has nominal authenticity if it has the correct historical origin; but regardless of its nominal authenticity, something can have expressive authenticity if it is a “true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs.” This distinction could apply to usage as well. While use of a symbol might not be authentic in the nominal sense (if you do not belong to the relevant group), it might still be authentic in the expressive sense (if you use it in the appropriate way). Consider the use of the sun symbol of Zia Pueblo in New Mexico. The Zia symbol is featured on the New Mexico state flag, and is ubiquitous throughout advertising in the state. Use of the symbol just to turn a buck might be inappropriate, but use of the symbol meant to express a connection with the land and its history might well be appropriate regardless of one’s association with Zia Pueblo (though the Pueblo prefers that potential users ask permission first). The primary issue is not cultural membership, but rather, cultural respect.

So what is the upshot here? The fact that there may be appropriate and inappropriate ways to use cultural heritage symbols (and I believe that there are) need not entail that appropriate uses are confined to members or descendants of the group in question. This is by no means a defense of Urban Outfitters—regardless of whether the lawsuit against UO is successful, it is reasonable to think that the use of the Navajo symbol and name in the marketing of underwear and flasks is not respectful use of the Navajo culture, and therefore inappropriate. However, there must also be room for appropriate use of cultural heritage by outsiders if positive and healthy cultural exchange is to be a possibility. For instance, it is not clear that there is anything inappropriate about the Navajo influence in fashion that prompted the misappropriations of the Navajo name and mark by UO. Cross-cultural permeation of aesthetic sensibilities can be a way of acknowledging the beauty of other cultures. While there is always a lurking danger of the misuse of cultural heritage, we should also be wary of an overly possessive attitude toward cultural heritage that can stifle the very understanding and respect that misappropriation is rightly criticized for violating. 

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