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Protecting Tribal Names in the Marketplace

Companies are continuously looking for new ways to maximize profits through branding in an increasingly competitive marketplace. This has led to copyright infringement becoming 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 cultural appropriation of Native American tribal names and images.

Many companies use tribal names, symbols or cultural references to develop and sell their merchandise or services without securing a tribe’s permission or paying any royalties. While this practice has been commonplace in the past, native leaders and groups have been employing trademark protection law and building public awareness in the fight 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 Washington Redskins, to name a few). Native American tribes, images and traditions have also been appropriated to promote and sell products ranging from vehicles (Jeep Cherokee) to alcohol (Mohawk vodka) to tobacco (American Spirit).

One demonstration of the importance of trademark protection for Native American cultural images and references is the Navajo Nation’s 2012 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 maintained that only the Navajo tribe should have the right to describe goods as “Navajo.” Similarly, the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) filed a lawsuit against the Neiman Marcus Group in 2020 regarding the appropriation of a culturally traditional, historic weaving pattern for a luxury coat design.

Urban Outfitters settled with the Navajo Nation in 2016. SHI’s lawsuit against Neiman Marcus was settled out of court as well. Analogous instances of cultural appropriation in the clothing industry have continued, such as with retailer Madhappy’s heavy use of elements of the Navajo Nation seal in a store logo. But after receiving complaints of the offensive appropriation, Madhappy apologized quickly and took dynamic steps to remedy the situation.

This reflects changes in public sentiment and awareness of cultural appropriation as well as a general societal shift in expectations of corporate social responsibility. Appropriated — and often offensive or downright racist — names and mascots have been retired and replaced in several instances. For example, two of the aforementioned sports teams have renamed their outfits and are now known respectively as the Cleveland Guardians and the Washington Commanders. Still, numerous teams, brands and other entities have yet to take this step.

Guarding a Cultural Heritage

To ensure a tribe’s historic legacy, tribal governments and 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 as well as cultural and intellectual property. 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 Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs have created special courses that focus on pertinent indigenous issues like trademark protection.

Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s online MBA in Native American Leadership program, for example, features courses in tribal sovereignty and other 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 Southeastern Oklahoma State University online MBA in Native American Leadership program.

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