August 19, 2011

Tribalism as Pop Culture Phenomenon and the Perpetuation of Offensive American Indian Stereotypes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Ruth Hopkins @ 5:37 pm

While the misappropriation of American Indian cultures and imagery by western society has persisted for decades, there’s been a gradual uptick in the misrepresentation of Native peoples in the past several years. “Tribalism,” a mainstream trend largely based on false, stereotypical notions of who indigenous people are, has become a pop culture phenomenon. Celebutantes, pop princesses and hipster wannabes have been donning gaudy, exaggerated war bonnets and headdresses, wearing “war paint,” and playing dress up in Native American “inspired” costumes in record numbers. The perpetuation of stereotypical images of Native peoples is unacceptable and discriminatory for a myriad of reasons.

Non-natives who wear American Indian costumes are pretending to be someone of another race. Just as wearing blackface is repugnant, appearing as a stereotyped caricature of an American Indian is patently offensive. Those who play “dress up” by wearing an American Indian costume, headdress or war bonnet are not only failing to acknowledge the existence of over 500 recognized native nations, each separate and distinct from one another, they are making light of centuries of suffering, oppression and genocide endured by the indigenous people of this country. Enforcing racial stereotypes of Native peoples as savages in nondescript feathers and fringe also perpetuates the myth that American Indians are not active members of modern society and questions our very existence.

Perhaps the most deplorable version of stereotypical American Indian ensembles is the “sexy Indian” costume, a.k.a. the “Pocahottie.” Such costumes, like the one Paris Hilton wore last Halloween, depict Native women as sex objects to be desired by non-native men (and perhaps women). Considering that American Indian women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race of women, that one out of three of all American Indian women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and that as many as 4 out of 5 of these acts of sexual violence are committed by non-native men, the very idea of perpetuating the image of Native women as a sex object is reprehensible.

Not all American Indian Tribes include war bonnets or headdresses as part of their traditional regalia. Of those who do, headdresses and war bonnets were worn by men, and have nothing to do with fashion or the sexual objectification of women. Each eagle feather contained in a war bonnet is individually earned, often bestowed upon the owner through ceremony, and represents a significant event or acknowledged act of bravery, leadership, or self-sacrifice. War bonnets are specifically worn by powerful, respected American Indian men with a history of valor who are leaders in their Tribal community. In other words, the only people who should be wearing war bonnets are chiefs or well-respected warriors, like Tatanka Iyotanka, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota—not Chloe Kardashian, or the pop star Ke$ha. Can you imagine the outrage if a celebrity was featured in scantily clad photos with a Medal of Valor or a Silver Star or the Congressional Medal of Honor that they didn’t earn? Such an inconsiderate display would be akin to the wearing of a war bonnet by someone who hasn’t earned it. This disgrace should be included in the Theft of Valor Act.

Natives have made repeated efforts to educate the public on American Indian identity, as well as explain why stereotypical depictions of Native people are offensive, yet willful ignorance pervades. Instead, we are met with defensiveness and told that we should feel honored. Those who perpetuate false, negative images of Natives are unwilling or unable to grasp the concept that honoring Native people does not involve making Natives into insulting caricatures. Furthermore, stating that the misappropriation of our cultures and identities isn’t important is an attempt to diminish Natives who are against such misuse.

Still, there could be more to this pop culture phenomenon than meets the eye. Many western countries, including the United States, are in the midst of wars, social upheaval, dwindling resources, and economic uncertainty. People, especially the young and disenfranchised, are looking for something sacred. Sociologists have theorized that the decline of mainstream culture and its institutions, along with a breakdown in social structure, would cause people to embrace nostalgia for that which the world now lacks, while seeking out social networks to fulfill a need to belong. This movement has been coined, “Neo-tribalism.”

I sympathize with the lost westerner who is searching for the sacred, who only wants a Tribe to call their own. However, these individuals need to recognize that stolen images based on inaccurate, offensive stereotypes of ancient cultures that they have made no effort to understand will not give them the fulfillment they seek. As Native people, we do not belong to you; therefore, we are not at your disposal or available for your misappropriation. Befriend us, don’t insult us. If you listen to us, we’ll show you the ways of Earth. In the process, you might uncover the sacred that was within you all along.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at cankudutawin@hotmail.com

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September 19, 2011

DW Diaz Takes on Hipster Appropriation With ‘Genocide Chic’

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment,News Alerts,Video — Tags: , , , , , , — ICTMN Staff @ 3:09 pm

Here’s a bit of cutting satire from writer/actress DW Diaz—strong stuff in the style of Sacha Baron Cohen. (Note that she’s using a human being as furniture; that seems a direct tribute to a certain scene from Bruno.)

Click here to view the embedded video.

What do you think—is it funny, or does it go to far?

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October 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day

Here’s a submission we received from a concerned member of the Santee Sioux nation; it’s a letter addressed to the CEO of Urban Outfitters that raises some compelling moral and, interestingly, legal issues with some of the store’s native themed clothing and accessories:

Dear Glen T. Senk, CEO Urban Outfitters Inc.:

This past weekend, I had the unfortunate experience of visiting a local Urban Outfitters store in Minneapolis. It appeared as though the recording “artist” Ke$ha had violently exploded in the store, leaving behind a cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive retail collection. Plastic dreamcatchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns.

In all seriousness, as a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as “fashion.”

All too often industries, sports teams and ignorant individuals legitimize racism under the guise of cultural “appreciation”. There is nothing honorable or historically appreciative in selling items such as the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt or the Navajo Hipster Panty. These and the dozens of other tacky products you are currently selling referencing Native America make a mockery of our identity and unique cultures.

Your corporate website claims to “offer a lifestyle-specific shopping experience for the educated, urban-minded individual”. If this is the case, then clearly you have missed the mark on your target demographic. There is simply nothing educated about your collection, which on the contrary professes extreme ignorance and bigotry.

Urban Outfitters Navajo Hipster Panties An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day

My primary concern with your company is the level on which you are engaging in cultural and religious appropriation. None of your products are actually made by Indigenous nations, nor were any Native peoples involved in the production or design process. On the contrary, you have created cheap knock-off trinkets made in factories overseas. Selling imported plastic and nylon dreamcatchers disrespects our history and undermines our sovereignty as Tribal Nations.

Did I mention that marketing inauthentic products using Native American tribal names is also illegal? The company’s actions violate the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990 and the Federal Trade Commission Act. According to the Department of the Interior:

“The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000”.

I doubt that you consulted the Navajo Nation about using their tribal name on sophisticated items such as the “Navajo Hipster Panty”. In fact, I recently became aware that the Navajo Nation Attorney General sent your company a cease and desist letter regarding this very issue. I stand in solidarity with the Navajo Nation and ask that you not only cease and desist selling products falsely using the Navajo name, but that you also stop selling faux Indian apparel that cheapens our culture and heritage.

Urban Outfitters Inc. has taken Indigenous life ways and artistic expressions and trivialized and sexualized them for the sake of corporate profit. Your company also perpetuates the worst stereotype of Indians. This is theft of our very cultural identity, no less so than the theft of our traditional homelands that began with Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas. On this day that America still celebrates as Columbus Day, I ask that do what is morally right and apologize to Indigenous peoples of North America and withdraw this offensive line from retail stores.


Sasha Houston Brown, Dakota
Santee Sioux Nation

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October 28, 2011

Halloween: Time to Wear Your Indian Costumes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Chase Iron Eyes @ 2:29 am

Halloween is fast approaching, and little monsters everywhere are scrambling for costumes. Every year there should be an awareness campaign about the practice of Americans assuming Indian identity by donning an “Indian costume.”

What do “they” get out of playing Indian? Maybe it fills some psychological-spiritual void that is created by the separation of man and nature, the latter to be exploited (toiled) as in the Bible or in accordance with the scientific method—but to say that would be stereotyping on my part. It is clear to me that several generations of media have succeeded in making caricatures of Indigenous peoples. Intentionally or not, the American Indian, by and large, has been made out to be something other than a normal contributing component of western civilization. The reasons for this phenomenon are not hard to imagine when one considers the inter-generational conditioning Americans are put through via school and pop culture.

Because most Americans see American Indians as a conquered and disappearing race, they see no wrong in playing Indian dress-up, particularly in social situations which do not include Indians. When in fact there is definitely a wrongful appropriation happening. Members of the mainstream—historically of Euro descent—have crafted 500 years of institutional paradigms that usually depict the Indian as noble, savage, bloodthirsty, lusty, and/or fierce. More importantly, the mainstream is convinced that Indians, having not figured out how to exploit the earth properly, were and continue to be impediments to “progress”—progress as defined in “modern” financial-industrial civilization. These collective paradigms see us as relics, as interesting little bits of history, ones that fit well into the narratives of White heroes.

Consider these questions: Can I touch your hair? Are you a real Indian? Do you live in a tipi? I have personally been asked these questions in real life. Can I put your living culture in museum? Can I withhold sacred items for scientific inspection? Can you be our specimen? Can we track you based on pedigree as we do our dogs and horses? Can we enforce our imaginary Christian dominion over you without you even questioning its legitimacy? These questions are sometimes not even asked; they go without saying and many Indians greet them without so much as raising an eyebrow.

Thus, I can understand why the average American would not consider whether his or her action in dressing up as an Indian for Halloween is offensive. I have said before that no longer are we living our identity; we are looking at it through a lens created by the European—a lens in which Indians are inferior and whites are superior. We are looking through a lens created and shown by such ongoing practices as Indian Halloween costumes, countless Hollywood “Indian” cameos or Indian oriented material, phony commercialized “Indian” products, and the use of Indians as team nicknames and mascots. Whatever the market demands, the market will produce. Right now, we are seeing what the market demands.

Inevitably, we judge our own “Indianness” based on the whole of our life experiences and learning. Largely, the whole of our learning consists of foreign perceptions learned in schools, internet, TV and other outlets. My fellow Indians and forward thinking Americans, we are in for serious challenges with respect to changing the way the market and the media treats Indians. However, with ever-changing media, including the internet and television, I am genuinely hopeful because American Indians are beginning to tell their own stories. It remains to be seen the level at which we break into the “mainstream”—or if we do, whether we can change stubborn minds.

We are beginning to own our image and remake it in a manner that suits us, the real Indians. I say that we are facing a lifetime challenge because we have so much re-learning to do. Ours is a society that denies its own holocaust. Few are the people that actually want to come face to face with the real America. But we have to; and we must forgive. I have meaningful conversations with my eight year-old daughter every time she tries to attribute all of white-America’s historical wrongdoings to her young white contemporaries.

So, let me close by saying that I know the market will demand Indian costumes into the foreseeable future. However, if you choose to dress up in an “Indian costume” during Halloween or some other function, you had better hope you only run into the more civilized lot of Indians. Because you don’t want to encounter Indians of a different persuasion. I know violence is not the answer here, I will only say that I have personally witnessed these less civil Indians (professional colleagues who will go unnamed) on a Halloween night; they do not take kindly to your ill-advised costume choice and will let you know it. For my children’s sake, I am glad they do not tolerate such behavior. Sometimes, change is hard to come.

Hecegla (That is enough)

Chase Iron Eyes is an attorney licensed in the State of South Dakota and the Federal Courts of both North and South Dakota. Visit thelastrealindian.blogspot.com to read more of his writings.

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November 17, 2011

Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perry’s Birthday

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment,News Alerts — Tags: , , , — ICTMN Staff @ 7:16 pm

Singer Katy Perry’s recent birthday party had a “Wild West” theme, and where there’s ironic cowboys and cowgirls you’re bound to find ironic Indians. Many guests went all out-with their costumes, including Perry’s husband, the British comedian and actor Russell Brand, who wore a full breastplate, though other faux natives were a bit less committed to the idea.

There’s something ironic about these pictures being circulated without comment on the same day that Benetton gets in trouble over its advertisements deemed offensive by the Catholic church: “Vatican to take legal action against Benetton”.

These images are from TheCobraSnake.com.

katy perry birthday indians 1 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 2 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 3 russell brand Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 4 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 5 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 6 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 7 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 8 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

katy perry birthday indians 9 Englishman Russell Brand and Others Play Indian for Katy Perrys Birthday

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January 28, 2012

On Tails of Navajo Controversy, Urban Outfitters’ Stock Plunges, CEO Resigns

RichardHayne On Tails of Navajo Controversy, Urban Outfitters Stock Plunges, CEO Resigns

Billionaire Richard Hayne, co-founder of Urban Outfitters, will replace Glen Senk, the CEO of Urban Outfitters since 2007.

Late October, Sasha Houston Brown, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, wrote an open letter to the chief executive officer of Urban Outfitters, criticizing the company’s gross cultural and religious appropriation of American Indians’ traditional designs and sacred objects.

Among its Native-themed attire and jewelry, Urban Outfitters offered the Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask, Peace Treaty Feather Necklace, Staring at Stars Skull Native Headdress T-shirt and the Navajo Hipster Panty.

“None of your products are actually made by Indigenous nations, nor were any Native peoples involved in the production or design process,” Brown wrote. “On the contrary, you have created cheap knock-off trinkets made in factories overseas. Selling imported plastic and nylon dreamcatchers disrespects our history and undermines our sovereignty as Tribal Nations.”

Soon after Brown’s letter appeared on Racialicious and was subsequently picked up by numerous blogs and media sites,  the Attorney-General of the Navajo Nation sent a cease-and-desist letter to Urban Outfitters, attesting the name “Navajo” is the Nation’s intellectual property, reported the RetailCustomerExperience.com. The letter cited The Federal Indian Arts and Crafts act of 1990 and the Federal Trade Commission Act prohibiting U.S. retailers and manufacturers from misleading costumers in any way that a product is Native American-made when it is not.urban outfitters printed hipster panty On Tails of Navajo Controversy, Urban Outfitters Stock Plunges, CEO Resigns

Urban Outfitters responded to threats of legal action by removing the word “Navajo” from its merchandise.

But the controversy has weighed heavily on the clothing retailer’s performance. Urban’s net income has decreased four quarters in a row. On January 9 Glen Senk, CEO since 2007, abruptly resigned. The company’s announcement of Senk’s departure late in the following day caused Urban’s stock in after-hours trading to tumble by 14 percent from the day’s close, reported Forbes. Billionaire Richard Hayne, the 64-year-old co-founder of Urban, has assumed Senk’s former position. But the corporate shake-up still caused Urban’s shares to drop 18.6 percent.

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February 1, 2012

Drew Barrymore Flashes Peace Sign While Wearing ‘War Bonnet’

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment,News Alerts — Tags: , , , — ICTMN Staff @ 6:11 pm

A photo of actress Drew Barrymore wearing a feather headdress and a Budweiser t-shirt has surfaced on the internet. Barrymore seems to be having a good time in the picture, flashing a peace sign and laughing, but American Indians aren’t quite so happy with the image.

Adrienne K. of Native Appropriations confesses she thought Drew was a “cool chick,” which perhaps makes this image that much harder to take. “Not only do you give us the stereotypical war bonnet,” she writes, “you give us an association of Indians with alcohol, which is probably right up there with the worst possible stereotypes of Native people in the world ever. Nice work.”

The image is watermarked “Flower Films,” which is Barrymore’s production company (responsible for Donnie Darko, 50 First Dates, Whip It, and the Charlie’s Angels movie franchise). Is this a scene from an upcoming Flower Films release?

drew Drew Barrymore Flashes Peace Sign While Wearing War Bonnet

Drew Barrymore

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February 29, 2012

Navajo Nation Sues Urban Outfitters

In a sequel to the drama that unfolded in the fall, the Navajo Nation has sued Urban Outfitters for trademark infringement and violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Last year, the Navajo Nation sent Urban Outfitters a cease and desist letter demanding it stop promoting items in its store such as socks, underwear and plastic trinkets as “Navajo.” A public furor erupted in October when a member of the Santee Sioux nation distributed “An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day.” With bloggers hurling outrage and mainstream media picking up the story, Urban Outfitters quietly pulled the controversial items from its website.

The Nation’s lawsuit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, addresses Navajo-branded items in Urban Outfitters catalogs and sold by different arms of the Philadelphia-based company, such as Free People.

The lawsuit states, according to an AP report, “The fame or reputation of the Navajo name and marks is such that, when defendant uses the ‘Navajo’ and ‘Navaho’ marks with its goods and services, a connection with the Navajo Nation is falsely presumed.”

At press time, a search of FreePeople.com for “Navajo” yielded seven results: One was a “Hacienda Bag” that was not explicitly labeled Navajo and the other six were vintage jewelry items. The latter are identified as being between 30 and 80 years old and could, conceivably, have been made by Navajo craftspeople.

Or perhaps Free People is simply using the word “Navajo” to mean “Indian-looking.” It may be up to the courts to sort this out. Let the games begin.

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September 20, 2012

Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment,News Alerts — Tags: , , , , — ICTMN Staff @ 7:14 pm

Canadian rock legend Neil Young has always had a fascination with Native American culture — songs he has recorded on Native themes include “Cortez the Killer,” “Pocahontas,” and “Broken Arrow,” and his backing band Crazy Horse is named for the Oglala Lakota leader.

Young has recorded an album with Crazy Horse, called Psychedelic Pill, which will be released on October 30. It’s a double album, with nine tracks — one clocking in at 27 minutes in length, and three of them over 16 minutes long — stretched over two CDs. On September 10, Young’s record label, Reprise, issued a track listing and an image of the album’s cover art. Then, on Tuesday, the label put out a new press release stating that the cover art had been changed, and that the cover has now “taken on a stronger, more direct image to reflect the commanding and expansive music heard on the two CD or three vinyl disc sets.”

Here’s the original cover art distributed to the press on September 10:

neil young crazy horse psychedelic pill cover 1 Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

And here’s the revamped cover:

neil young crazy horse psychedelic pill cover 2 Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

Something got bigger, didn’t it?

Psychedelic Pill is the second release by Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 2012. Americana, which came out in June, has, if anything, a stronger visual focus on Natives. Its cover is a take on a famous 1905 photo of Geronimo sitting in a Locomobile (the photo also inspired the song “Geronimo’s Cadillac” by Michael Martin Murphey):

neil young crazy horse americana Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

On Americana‘s back cover, the Crazy Horse image appears above a wagon train:

neil young crazy horse americana back Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

Going back a little further (skipping the 2003 release Greendale), you’ll find another very “Indian” cover, for the 1996 Neil Young and Crazy Horse album Broken Arrow:

neil young and crazy horse broken arrow Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

Young’s “Indian” identity dates back to his days in Buffalo Springfield, the group he was in from 1966-67; in In For What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, he said:

There I was making 120 bucks a week at the Whisky as a musician. … I’ve always liked fringe jackets. I went out and bought one right away with some pants and a turtleneck shirt. Oh yeah, I thought I was heavy. I wore them on some TV shows and whenever we worked. Then I went to this place on Santa Monica Boulevard near La Cienega. I saw this great Comanche war shirt, the best jacket I’ve ever seen. I had two more made. The group was Western, the name Buffalo Springfield came off a tractor, so it all fit. I was the Indian. That’s when it was cool to be an Indian.

buffalo springfield Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

An undated publicity photo of Buffalo Springfield with 'Neil the Indian' at upper right.

Authors John Einarson and Richie Furay add that the music press really dug the idea: “Many people believed Neil was, in fact, an Indian because magazines like Teen Screen and TeenSet constantly referred to him as ‘Neil the Indian.’”

With so much talk of cultural appropriation and misappropriation — see Paul Frank Industries’ “Dream Catchin’” party (and surprise happy ending) — we’re curious to know whether any Natives feel Young, who was born in Canada and has no known Native heritage, ever crosses the line with his enthusiasm for American Indian culture. This one is a little trickier than a pair of “Navajo” panties from Urban Outfitters because, speaking very broadly, a lot of Indians really like Neil Young’s music. Musician Bill Miller, Mohican from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin, for instance, included two Neil Young tunes in his list of 10 Essential Songs for Native Musicians.

Sorting out what uses of American Indian culture are respectful and what ones aren’t is a personal decision — perhaps Neil Young’s Native fetish is uncontroversial because everyone feels it’s done in a completely respectful way. Or does he get a pass because, well, he’s Neil Young?

(And not, say, Ted Nugent or the guy from Jamiroquai.)

patti smith neil young Neil Young Puts Native Horseman Front and Center on Cover of Upcoming Album

Patti Smith and Neil Young at NYC Book Expo, June 2012. Image courtesy mrsblacksmith.com

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September 27, 2012

Urban Outfitters Seeks to Move Trademark Case to Pennsylvania

In February, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters for alleged trademark infringement and violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. At issue was a range of products sold by the retailer labeled “Navajo,” including, for example, a “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask” and a “Navajo Hipster Panty.” After quite a bit of negative press, Urban Outfitters renamed the products — at least on the company’s website.

The case is pending in U.S. District Court in New Mexico. According to an AP report, Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, through its lawyers, is now asking the court to move the case to the eastern district of Pennsylvania. The arguments offered in court for the change of venue are that a Pennsylvania court would be more convenient, more experienced in matters of copyright law, and more expedient.

As a report at Albuquerque’s KRQE.com points out, there are no federally recognized Indian tribes in the state of Pennsylvania.

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