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Protecting Tribal Names in the Marketplace

Importance of protecting tribal names in the marketplace

With more and more companies continuously looking for new ways to maximize profits in an increasingly competitive marketplace, copyright infringement has become an ever-present issue as businesses try to cash in on names and concepts they may not rightfully own. This is certainly the case in the corporate appropriation of Native American tribal names and images.

Many companies use tribal names, symbols or cultural references to develop and sell their merchandise without securing a tribe’s permission or paying any royalties. While this practice has been commonplace in the past, recently native leaders and groups have become more aware of trademark protection and have been fighting back to regain both intellectual and fiscal control of their heritage.

Cashing in on Native Culture

Clearly Native American tribal names carry a great deal of currency. Companies and government agencies have relied on the evocative power of indigenous images and words to brand everything from military equipment (helicopter names like Apache, Comanche, Chinook) to sports teams (Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins, to name a few). Native American tribes and images have also helped sell items ranging from vehicles (Jeep Cherokee), to alcohol (Mohawk vodka), to food (Hopi popcorn).

Perhaps one of the best demonstrations of the importance of trademark protection for Native American cultural images and references is the Navajo Nation’s recent case against Urban Outfitters. Urban Outfitters was selling a number of items ranging from underwear (the “Navajo Hipster panty”) to clothing, jewelry, accessories and even flasks with Navajo designs and images. The Navajo Nation is claiming that only the Navajo tribe should have the right to describe goods as “Navajo.” Millions of dollars and the legitimacy of the Navajo legacy depend on the outcome of this case.

Guarding a Cultural Heritage

To ensure a tribe’s historic legacy, Native American leaders must understand what they can do to preserve the integrity of their heritage. Safeguarding Native American tribal names and images is essential not only to a tribe’s identity but also to their business interests. Knowing what steps and precautions a tribe can take to defend the integrity of their ancestry will play a key role in promoting future financial security.

There are many complex legal and governmental policies surrounding trademark protection of Native American tribal names. Tribes’ future prosperity will depend on how well they can control the dispersion of their cultural identity as well as ensuring they receive fair royalties.

Knowledge Is Power for Native Governance

The interplay of copyright infringement and Native American tribal names is becoming a major issue for today’s native communities. In response, some MBA programs have created special courses that focus on pertinent indigenous issues like trademark protection. Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s MBA in Native American Leadership program, for example, features courses in tribal sovereignty and topical issues that highlight a wide range of important topics for native communities. These classes offer a thorough overview of fundamental legal principles in federal Indian law as well as policies that affect the operation of tribal governments.

Leaders who understand a tribe’s legal rights and opportunities regarding trademark protection can help to ensure the cultural and economic prosperity of their people.

Learn more about the SOSU online MBA in Native American Leadership program.


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