Hints of the American Southwest

Published in Indian Country Today in 2004. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

New York, New York — Ralph Lauren has just premiered his Fall 2004 collection of suits and dresses. Made of luxury fabrics, such as cashmere and alpaca, they were accessorized during the fashion show with vintage Navajo turquoise-and-silver jewelry, shown here, and belts; some of the clothes were also decorated with excerpts of Navajo textile patterns. Fashion reporters termed the collection, which will arrive in stores in the months to come, “masterful.”

When Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas, Navajo weaver, saw a photograph in her local newspaper of a Lauren dress she had a different reaction: “I was stunned. The dress uses a blanket and dress pattern from the 1800s — something my great-great-great grandmother would have woven — to show off cleavage. It isn’t respectful.”

Her objections are both economic and cultural, continued Ornelas, who comes from a long line of Two Grey Hills weavers. Her two children, both college students, are carrying on the tradition. “For years, we’ve battled the problem of non-Navajos making so-called ‘Navajo-inspired’ textiles. Several companies, including Yucca Flats, have imitated rugs of mine that are in museum collections. People who can’t think of their own creative ideas use ours to further their goal, which is making money. We do want to sell our work, but we also carry forward a sacred tradition. Weavings are living, breathing things.”

“Unfortunately, intellectual property law doesn’t stop either kind of use described,” said Anthony Paonita, an editor at American Lawyer magazine, in New York City. “The measuring stick is whether or not the buyer will confuse the item with the original. That wouldn’t happen with the Lauren dresses, which are unlike the originals in many respects. And, if the ‘Navajo-inspired’ textiles are labeled as such and have significant differences from the originals — such as size or color — a court would likely find them permissible as well.”

So, it’s legal – but is it ethical? Certainly, knocking off a textile design is lower on the outrage meter than, say, Outkast’s performance of “Hey Ya” at the 2004 Grammys, sports teams with demeaning Native nicknames and mascots, or landscape features that use “squaw” in their names.

In any case, individual artists and even entire cultures have always traded influences. The Romans took from the Greeks; the Japanese borrowed from the Chinese. The Javanese are famously syncretic, absorbing many other customs into their own. Andy Warhol made a career of appropriating commercial images — in his legendary painting of a Campbell’s tomato-soup can, for example. Diego Romero, Cochiti Pueblo, decorated a pottery bowl with an image he calls “Luncheon in the Canyon”; the scene refers to French impressionist Edouard Manet’s provocative painting, “Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.”

Even Navajo weavers use each other’s work for inspiration. “This goes on constantly,” said Brenda Spencer, Navajo, who has worked in the Wide Ruins style for 25 years. “When it’s geometric, it’s hard to say it belongs to someone. But you have to work with the design to make it your own.”

Make it your own: Therein lies the crux of the issue. Behind the most objectionable portrayals of Native people is the widespread assumption that they and their cultures are fair game for those in the dominant culture — like Lauren — who can cherrypick elements to use in their own work. (Of course, people like the billionaire designer have the power to prevent infringement on their products.)

Evocations of indigenous imagery — generally explained as “homage” — pervade American life, even in the 21st century. From the buffalo nickel to the “Indian” motorcycle, from the Boy Scouts to the State of New Mexico adopting Zia Pueblo’s signature design, references to this continent’s Native people have become shorthand notation for a vague, ever-changing constellation of attributes.

In contrast, when cultures or artists succeed in transforming a borrowed image — when they make it their own, in Spencer’s terms — it transcends its original content. It becomes greater than it was. Warhol and Romero surprise us by putting familiar images in unusual contexts. The soup can moves from kitchen cupboard to museum wall; a picnic moves from painting to pottery bowl. With intelligence and humor, these artists ask us, among other things, to reconsider the boundaries of art. They tell us something of what it is to be human — to have cultural reference points, but also to question them.

Similarly, Spencer describes the hard work, temporal and spiritual, required to create a weaving; in essence, God is in the details, as the traditional weavers entwine warp and woof, blend colors, and balance patterns. “For Navajo people, patterns come from within, from the mind and spirit,” Ornelas said. “Some of the weaving you plan, and some develops as you’re working. I learned to weave from my mother, sister, and grandmothers; it’s as though my family comes together in my pieces. Even now, after my grandmothers and sister have passed on, I can ask them for help if I’m stuck when sitting at my loom. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a pattern.”

When a wealthy partygoer slips on a cashmere dress with a fragment of Navajo pattern on its hem, she learns nothing of those who originally developed and wore it. The original idea is diminished, not expanded. Lauren profits, while dismissing his source. The resonances of a millennia-old culture become nothing more than, as the press release for the Fall 2004 collection said, “hints of the American Southwest.”

As people in The Bronx, where Lauren was born, might say to the Navajo weavers, “You wuz robbed.”

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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