FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation has sued Urban Outfitters months after the tribe sent a cease and desist letter to the clothing retailer demanding it pull the "Navajo" name from its products.
The lawsuit filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico alleges trademark violations and violations of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal to sell arts or crafts in a way to falsely suggest they're made by American Indians when they're not.
The tribe has at least 10 registered trademarks on the Navajo name that cover clothing, footwear, online retail sales, household products and textiles. Tribal justice officials said they're intent on protecting what they believe are among the tribe's most valuable assets.
"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," the lawsuit states.
Urban Outfitters set off a firestorm of criticism last year with its line of Navajo-branded clothing and accessories — particularly underwear and a liquor flask, which the tribe said was "derogatory and scandalous," considering the sale and consumption of alcohol is banned on the reservation that spans parts of northeast Arizona, southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico. The company removed the products from its website after acknowledging receipt of the cease and desist letter.
But the Navajo Nation wrote in its lawsuit that products with the "Navajo" name still are sold through other company brands, like Free People, in catalogs and retail stores.
The clothing boutique's website features several pieces of jewelry labeled vintage "Navajo" with turquoise stones and silver. A description for a handmade cuff says it originally was sold at a trading post, and has etched arrow detailing with a "sterling" stamp on the back.
The Philadelphia-based company did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Company spokesman Ed Looram said in an email last October that Urban Outfitters had no plans to alter its products.
"Like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come," he said. "The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term 'Navajo' have been cycling thru fashion, fine art and design for the last few years."
He later declined further comment, saying the matter was in the hands of legal counsel.
Tuesday's action isn't the first time the Navajo Nation has asserted its trademarks. The tribe successfully forced the cancellation of a "Navaho" trademark last year that was used by a French company doing business in the United States. The tribe argued the name was phonetically identical and infringed on its trademark.
The tribe licenses its name to other businesses in exchange for a share of their profits, and it has identified about two dozen companies it believes are violating the Navajo trademark.
The lawsuit seeks monetary compensation and an order permanently enjoining Urban Outfitters from using the name "Navajo" or variations of it on its products.