Submission: so about a month ago I saw this t shirt advertised on the Topshop website and was immediately offended by the imagery and decided to submit an argument to the company in order to persuade them to stop selling the shirt. I am part Mikmaq and took some classes in college focusing on other North American tribes but forgive me if I got some facts wrong, I was pretty angry when I wrote the response:
“As a Topshop customer for over two years now, I would like to express my outrage at the recent arrival of a shirt this company named “Navaho Skull Print Tee”. I am a Native American citizen of the United States and am seriously offended by this display of blatant ignorance and racism by a company I have supported financially in the past and have enjoyed shopping at over the years, both in London and NYC.
My first problem with this shirt is the general and blatant cultural appropriation being exampled here. By claiming a general aesthetic of the “native american” culture, as if there weren’t thousands of cultures divided by tribe, you are essentially devaluing centuries of Native American cultures. Along with devaluing, you are also taking money away from the skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who rely on the ancient trades of their individual tribes to earn a living and support their families. Many Native Americans live in seriously impoverished areas of the US and the appropriation of this generalized aesthetic further takes the focus away from communities of fellow human beings who desperately need help with even the most basic essentials such as running water and paved roads.
Further, the imagery of this t shirt is extremely insensitive to the thousands of tribes that were effectively killed off by European settlers for hundreds of years and continues in a different way today by depriving tribes of adequate education, food, and water through institutionalized racism. You may not be aware of the genocide thousands of Native American tribes faced throughout human history but know that the history is wrought with horrifying tales from Canada into South America of egregious acts committed by European settlers and what would become the US government. If I can provide just one example of a genocidal act it would be the Trail of Tears, or Wounded Knee, or the private schools founded throughout Canada which abused countless Native American children. Pick up a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and learn something about the human beings your company is generalizing by producing this t shirt and any other item deemed “Aztec Print”or “NavaJo Print”.
By labeling this offensive image as “Navaho” you are taking ownership of a tribe’s history, art, and entire culture in order to make it fit in with the overall Topshop brand and thus be marketed to young adults who are just as ignorant in Navajo tradition. You may think by misspelling the word Navajo you are then curtailing any responsibility to the tribe, which holds a vast and important history in the US but is by no means the only tribe in the Americas, but you are not. You remain part of the worldwide trend to spread misinformation and ignorance towards an entire race of people that have shared space on this planet for thousands of years and seek to sum up the history of one tribe in a t shirt and label it as “Navajo” when no such design exists in this tribe or any other tribe’s culture.
The feathered headdress brings up a whole other multitude of racist imagery, besides the fact that it is placed upon an anonymous skull. The feathered warbonnet is a sacred cultural item reserved only for men, although your shirt does not distinguish gender but forces the viewer to become more numb towards images of anonymous, dead Native Americans, but the feathered warbonnet was a tradition of the Plains Indians, which the Navajo were not apart of. The simplest of googling techniques could have brought the designer to this fact if it were not for his/her blatant ignorance. The imagery the designer uses is completely horrific by showcasing a skull wearing an inaccurate headdress named for an inaccurate tribe. How insensitive and ignorant can one company be? Honestly, it is so offensive when countless Native American women were involuntarily sterilized in hospitals in the US up until the 1980s, or that many were ridden as a mode of transportation in the Caribbean, or the fact that many emergency services will ignore calls from reservations when an accident has occurred.
The lack of research, compassion, and education this company is displaying by selling this shirt is completely disgusting and you all should be ashamed. Each day many Native American tribes suffer from the institutionalized racism in the Americas and this company profitting off of stereotypes and racism is a horrible crime, in my opinion. Please reevaluate the message your company is sending to young adults across the world and take advantage of your success by educating, rather than spreading ignorance.”
About a week later I received this response from topshop customer service:
“Thank you for your email regarding the Topshop ’Navaho Skull Print Tee’. I was extremely concerned to note your comments on the image that is on this T-shirt, and would like to offer my sincere apologies on behalf of Topshop for the obvious upset this particular T-shirt has caused you.
Topshop stock T-shirts with various designs on them, and by featuring this particular design we certainly did not mean to cause offence to our customers or any members of the public. Please accept my assurances that this image was in no way meant to devalue any cultures, or give our customers any negative or inaccurate messages about the Navajo, or any other Native American tribes.
I have passed a copy of your email to our Buying Manager, so that she is aware of how strongly you feel about this issue. We are proud of our reputation as a retailer, and do not want to risk damaging this by causing any unnecessary upset to anyone. I can confirm that this T-shirt is now no longer available to purchase, and our Buying Manager has also passed on her apologies, and assured me that they will do all they can to ensure nothing like this is allowed to happen again.
I am grateful you have taken the time to bring your concerns to our attention, and once again apologise for the upset this product caused you.”
Basically I wanted to submit this to you because your blog inspired me to start speaking out actively against appropriation in pop culture and it could be encouraging to see a large company actually respond to my email and make the shirt unavailable for sale. Keep doing what you’re doing.