Crimes of Fashion: Intellectual Property and Indigenous Dress

Last week, Lady Justice tipped her scales against the cultural appropriation practices of big fashion. In the (potentially) landmark case of Navajo Nation v. Urban Outfitters, a federal judge in New Mexico has ruled against the corporate distributor of “Navajo” themed underwear.  The corporation claimed that the Navajo Nation knowingly delayed legal action in order to persecute the company. In turn, the Navajo Nation is argued that Urban Outfitters’ misuse of the Navajo name is trademark infringement and a violation of the US Indian Arts & Crafts Act of 1990. As a result of the ruling, the Navajo Nation is now one step closer to a multi-million-dollar payout and a watershed moment for the indigenous intellectual property movement. [Source: Zerbo]

Image Credit: “Navajo” Hipster Panty. Urban Outfitters via

Image Credit: “Navajo” Hipster Panty. Urban Outfitters via

Urban Outfitters isn’t the first (or likely the last) to participate in such practices, which are reliant on privilege (racial, economic, cultural, or other) and dependent on a lack of legal agency among indigenous groups. Rather, the fashion industry – from haute couture to K-mart – has an obsessive penchant for cultural plagiarism and exploitation. Until now, these practices have remained largely unchecked. While there has been a push towards the adoption of ethical fashion practices, designers need only give a lukewarm apology or explanation to be forgiven. Cases of blatant racism and aesthetic piracy are written off as mere faux pas and forgotten by the next fashion season.

However, indigenous groups like the Navajo Nation are now establishing a new model for combating corporate exploitation by claiming intellectual property rights and trademarking traditional designs. The Navajo Nation is but among several indigenous communities around the world pursuing legal avenues to protect their identities and material culture.

Maasai, East Africa
Since 2009, the Maasai of Eastern Africa have been working to control their identity and material culture. They also seek compensation from appropriating companies, which accrue an estimated $100 million/year from the use of the Maasai name and visual culture. The Maasai campaign follows closely on the heels of the Ethiopian trademark initiative (2004-2007), in which the Ethiopian government fought to gain ownership of its own coffee industry. If victorious in their claim, the Maasai would be able to earn upwards of $10 million in licensing revenues. At the moment, though, the Maasai remain embroiled in the tough battle to protect their culture and identity as companies continue to profit. [Sources: Birch; Faris]

Image Credist: Pharrell Williams for GQ Magazine (Oct 2014) via and Louis Vuitton (2011) via the Daily Nation (

Image Credist: Pharrell Williams for GQ Magazine (Oct 2014) via

Image Credist: Pharrell Williams for GQ Magazine (Oct 2014) via and Louis Vuitton (2011) via the Daily Nation (

Image Credist: Louis Vuitton (2011) via the Daily Nation (

Northern Cheyenne/Crow, North America
In February 2015, indigenous blogger Adrienne Keene published a scathing piece on a plagiarist New York Fashion Week collection that featured several replicated designs by indigenous designer Bethany Yellowtail of the Crow people. Fashion label KTZ (the brand behind the infamous swan dress worn by Icelandic pop star Bjork in 2001) was responsible for appropriating traditional techniques and styles of numerous indigenous groups under the guise of honor. After the story went viral, Yellowtail took a firm stand in her claims against several exploitative industry practices: unapologetic cultural theft, a severe lack of creative integrity, and the systemic erasure of indigenous peoples through fashion. Yellowtail fought back to prevent KTZ’s collection from ever hitting stores and used the situation to advocate support for indigenous design brands. [Source: Keene]

Image Credit: Bethany Yellowtail (2014) and KTZ (2015) via

Image Credit: Bethany Yellowtail (2014) and KTZ (2015) via

Nunavut, Northern Canada
Less than a year later, KTZ was back in the headlines for copying a sacred Nunavut design. KTZ lifted the design from a photograph in the book Northern Voices, which contains a photograph of a distinct style of protective parka, and retailed at over $900. Salome Awe, the granddaughter of the Nunavut shaman in the photograph, went public after KTZ repeatedly refused contact. As a result of the widespread social media backlash against KTZ, many distributors pulled the garment from the racks. Later, the label addressed Awe and her claims of cultural piracy in a public statement that reinforced KTZ’s commitment to “honoring” indigenous peoples the world over. Awe is currently pursing legal action against KTZ, which would require the company to forfeit profits from the garments in question to the Nunavut community. [Source: Off and Douglass]

Image Credit: Bethany Yellowtail (2014) and KTZ (2015) via

Image Credit: Bethany Yellowtail (2014) and KTZ (2015) via

Mixe, Mexico
At the same time, the women of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, have begun to retaliate against the cultural appropriation of a Mixe traditional garment by French designer Isabel Marant. In June 2015, news broke that Isabel Marant and fashion label Antik Batik were in legal disputes over the ownership of a blouse design that was created by the Mixe people. The Secretary of Indigenous Matters in Oaxaca responded by issuing a statement of his intention to take legal action. If either designer brands were to obtain a patent, the Mixe women who produce and sell these garments would be required to compensate the patent owners for the use of traditional Mixe designs. To date, both Marant and Antik Batik reject claims that they own or have ever sought ownership of the design. However, the notion that a designer could potentially patent material culture of indigenous community would result in a major setback for the indigenous intellectual property movement. [Sources: Milligan; Rodriguez-Jimenez]

Image Credit: Tweet by Development Pros, featuring traditional Mixe blouse (left) and Isabel Marant copy (right) via Vogue UK.

Image Credit: Tweet by Development Pros, featuring traditional Mixe blouse (left) and Isabel Marant copy (right) via Vogue UK.


In addition to combating cultural appropriation and corporate exploitation head-on, indigenous communities have helped to spawn a new era of ethical, sustainable fashion activism. Recently, an emerging model for culturally responsible design has emerged: indigenous-centered design. This model demands the increased representation of indigenous designers, who are uniquely positioned to incorporate indigenous knowledge without using exploitative practices. Indigenous designers are demonstrating how fashion can engage in aesthetic exchange without harming the original designers – the communities who, over generations, have perfected techniques, created complex systems of meaning and visual languages, and developed unique aesthetic qualities that reflect the way in which they see themselves and the world around them. Crow designer Bethany Yellowtail, mentioned above, is one such designer. Her designs are influenced by Native American history (but sans redface). [Source: Cheney-Rice]

Alongside the growing community of indigenous designers is a very small group of non-indigenous designers who are committed to creating sustainable artistic partnerships with indigenous communities. These allies are part of a new crop of culturally literate designers who have grown discontent with the current model of “ethical fashion,” in large part, they believe, spearheaded by designer Vivienne Westwood – herself accused of repeated use of blackface and in general suffering from a white-savior-of-Africa complex – and the Ethical Fashion Initiative.

Recently, the work of Brazilian designer and UNESCO Ambassador Oksare Metsavaht has taken on a more collaborative approach that moves towards equitable fashion design and aesthetics. Called “responsible borrowing,” this model is based on receiving permission from and compensating indigenous communities for the use of their designs and techniques. Metsavaht’s partnership with the Asháninka tribe of the Brazilian and Peruvian rainforest is bound by contractual agreement, in which Metsavaht’s clothing label is responsible for compensating the Asháninka (in an amount stipulated by the tribe), advocating against deforestation, as well as the transport of two Asháninka leaders to UN Conferences. [Sources: Avins; Varagur]

For more on the Asháninka/Metsavaht collaboration, click here.


Indigenous Runway Project
Miromoda — Indigenous Māori Fashion Apparel Board
Native Fashion Now at Peabody Essex Museum
Eff Yeah Indigenous Fashion!

Anderson, Jane. Indigenous / Traditional Knowledge & Intellectual Property. Duke University School of Law (2010).

Drahos, Peter. Intellectual Property, Indigenous People and Their Knowledge. Cambridge University Press (2014). Available in the UIUC Library.

Drabos, Peter and Susy Frankel. Indigenous people’s innovation: intellectual property pathways to development. ANU E-Press (2012). Available through the UIUC Library.

Lai, Jessica C. Indigenous Cultural Heritage and Intellectual Property Rights: Learning from The New Zealand Experience? Spring (2014). Available through the UIUC Library.

Mazonde, Isaac Ncube.Thomas, Pradip., eds. Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Intellectual Property Rights in The Twenty-first Century: Perspectives from Southern Africa. Dakar, Senegal: Council for The Development of Social Science Research in Africa (2007). Available in the UIUC Library.

Avins, Jenni. In fashion, cultural appropriation is either very wrong or very right. Quartz (Oct. 2015).

Birch, Stephanie. About Face: Africa and Global Fashion Revolution. (2015).

Cheney-Rice, Zak. Stunning Images Show How Native American Fashion Looks Without Cultural Appropriation. (May 2015).

Ducharme, Steve. Nunavut woman descended from shaman says KTZ apology not enough. (Dec. 2015).

Fairs, Stephan. Can a Tribe Sue for Copyright? The Maasai Want Royalties for Use of Their Name. Bloomberg Businessweek (Oct. 2013).

Keene, Adrienne. New York Fashion Week Designer steals from Northern Cheyenne/Crow artist Bethany Yellowtail. (Feb. 2015).

Milligan, Lauren. Mexican Media Storm Erupts Over Marant “Copying.” Vogue UK (Nov. 2015).

Off, Carol and Jeff Douglas. Nunavut family outraged after fashion label copies sacred Inuit design. CBC Radio (Nov. 2015).

Rodriguez-Jimenez, Jorge. French Fashion Designer Gets Called Out for Copying Indigenous Oaxacan Clothing Design. (Nov. 2015).

Varagur, Krithika. Is This The Right Way For Fashion To Do Cultural Appropriation? Huffington Post Style (Nov. 2015).

Zerbo, Julia. Navajo Nation Victorious in Latest Round Against Urban Outfitters. (April 2016).

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Louis Riel, the Métis, and the Making of Modern Canada


Map of Rupert’s Land in North America, the extent of the territory administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1870. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The recent Hollywood blockbuster The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an 1820s fur trader left for dead after a bear attack in the wilds of what are today the states of Montana and South Dakota. While the plot is partially fictional, much of actual North American history is referenced, including the harshness of the conditions surrounding the fur trade of the era. While some French-Canadians have condemned the film for its depictions of French-speaking voyageurs as lawless and immoral compared to the heroic American character portrayed by DiCaprio, the film is a strong contender for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. But where does the fiction end and the real history begin in this cinematic tour-de-force?

Before we answer that, let’s fast-forward from the 19th century back to the 21st for a moment. If you happen to be walking down the streets of one of Canada’s major cities like Winnipeg or Montreal, you might come across the name “Louis Riel” on certain government buildings and other official landmarks. You might suppose that this Riel fellow was a local hero, perhaps an important statesman or leader of some other kind from the pages of a history book. Given the French-sounding name, you might suppose that Monsieur Riel is somehow implicated in Canada’s origins (in part) as a colony of France. On all of these counts, you would not be wrong. But the deeper truth of Louis Riel’s story is as complex as any in North American history, and, moreover, essential to the establishment of the modern nation of Canada.

Chances are that while walking down the same hypothetical Canadian street, you would also likely be within a few miles’ radius of a certain department store called the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), often referred to today simply as “the Bay.” But, back when this particular company was founded – 346 years ago – it had a slightly longer, more ponderous title, as we will see shortly.

Cover of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography

Louis “David” Riel, Jr. (1844-1885) was a Métis (French: “mixed” – compare to Spanish mestizo or Portuguese mestiço), a descendant of both French fur traders and Canadian First Nations peoples such as the Cree. This distinct and semi-nomadic group, now recognized by the Canadian government as an Aboriginal people by the Constitution Act of 1982, represents an important phase of North American and especially Canadian history. For centuries, colonial-era French, Scottish, and English trappers ventured deep into the wilderness of what is now the northern United States and central Canada to supply the aforementioned Hudson’s Bay Company with commodities such as beaver pelts, highly valued in Europe for their quality and utility. Many of these intrepid men married women from the various First Nations groups and settled down with them to start families in small communities near the many lakes and rivers of the region. Such a community was the Red River Settlement, where Louis Riel was born and raised, on the site of what is today the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

KIC Image 0001

Original illustrations by Ronald Searle in the satirical The Great Fur Opera: Annals of the Hudson’s Bay Company 1670-1970

When France’s hold on the North American continent fell suddenly to the British at the culmination of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Year’s War) in 1763, French-descended and -speaking peoples such as the Quebecois and the Métis were, in many ways, at the mercy of their new colonial overlords. However, in the case of the Métis, many had already moved far to the west of the more populated areas of Quebec and Ontario (then known as Lower and Upper Canada, respectively) into what are today the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. For approximately a century thereafter, the relationship between the Métis and the Hudson’s Bay Company – established by English charter since 1670 as “The Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay” – would continue as it had in the same spirit of “heroic commerce,” as some historians have put it. Therefore, these lands were not yet a part of the soon-to-be sovereign Dominion of Canada, but instead made up an unincorporated territory of the ambiguous “Rupert’s Land,” as the drainage basin of the gargantuan Hudson’s Bay had been called since the British had claimed it via the Hudson’s Bay Company in the seventeenth century.

In 1869, when the newly independent government of Canada – though still under allegiance to the British crown as the ultimate legal authority – began to expand its jurisdiction into territories west of Ontario, including what is now the province of Manitoba, the local Métis, First Nations, and also various European or Euro-descended settlers were presented with a precarious dilemma: fight for independence or become a part of the new nation of Canada?

Louis Riel was the most prominent leader of the camp in opposition to these expansionist plans envisioned by Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Riel had been educated in Montreal and thus spoke English and was well-versed in the political dynamics of the time. When the surveying of the land began, Riel immediately was able to begin negotiations with the mostly Ontario-based prospectors and administrators that sought to establish the Red River area as a new province. At one point, Riel was even elected to Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. As Riel would soon find, however, these newcomers’ plans did not consider the specific rights, cultures, and land claims of the original and historical inhabitants. Moreover, much of the Canadian government’s plans included displacing the mostly Catholic Métis with white, Protestant Ontarians. Conflict seemed inevitable.


Louis Riel circa 1884. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Riel fought against the standing powers more with his voice and his pen than with any physical violence for the more than fifteen years of his involvement in the conflict. To avoid threats to his life, he spent long stretches of time in exile at the Métis settlement of Pembina, just across the U.S. border in Montana. However, because of his implication in the controversial public execution of an Anglophone settler named Thomas Scott in 1870, Riel was eventually convicted of high treason against the British crown in 1885 and was executed later that month by hanging. Meanwhile, back east, a majority of the Francophone population of Quebec seethed in opposition to such severe sentencing.

Though Riel was executed, his story and that of his people were integral to the cultural and ideological foundations of Canada, including its French, British, and First Nations heritages (and the mixtures thereof). In recognition of the man who is now considered the Founder of Manitoba, in 1992, the Canadian Parliament established the third Monday of February as Louis Riel Day, a statutory holiday celebrated in Manitoba that coincides with Family Day celebrated in other Canadian provinces. This year, Louis Riel Day falls on Monday, February 15, 2016.

The historian Thomas Flanagan writes, “Louis Riel is perhaps the most prominent name in Canadian history. In his brief political career, he personified the enduring antagonism of Canadian history: French against English, native against white, West against East. Not surprisingly, there is intense controversy over the significance of his life. He has been called a rebel and a patriot, a villain and a hero, a madman and a saint – and still the debate continues.”

As for the Hudson’s Bay Company, today it stands as the oldest merchandising company in the world.


The Hudson’s Bay Company’s flagship store in Toronto, Ontario, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For more information about Louis Riel, the Métis, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the founding of Canada, check the links shown above as well as the following books available through the University of Illinois Library:

Adams, Christopher, Gregg Dahl & Ian Peach (Eds.). 2013. Métis in Canada: History, Identity, Law & Politics. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: The University of Alberta Press.

Andersen, Chris. 2014. Métis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: UBC Press.

Bliss, Michael (Ed.). 1974. The Queen v Louis Riel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bown, Stephen R. 2009. Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900. Chapter 5: “Empire of the Beaver: Sir George Simpson and the Hudson’s Bay Company.” New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Flanagan, Thomas. 1992. “Louis Riel.” Historical Booklet, No. 50. Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association.

Huel, Raymond (Ed.). 1985. The Collected Writings of Louis Riel/Les Ecrits complet de Louis Riel, Volume 1: 29 December 1861 – 7 December 1875. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: The University of Alberta Press.

Rich, E.E. (Ed.). 1958. The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1870, Volume 1: 1670-1763. London: The Hudson’s Bay Record Society.

Sprague, D.N. 1988. Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885. Waterloo, ON, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

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