Code Talkers From 33 Tribes Receive Congressional Gold Medals

 Code Talkers from 33 tribes other than the Navajo Nation receive their Congressional Gold Medals.

Code Talkers from 33 tribes other than the Navajo Nation receive their Congressional Gold Medals.

By Vincent Schilling, November 20, 2013, ICTMN

This morning at 11 a.m., Native American Code Talkers from 33 tribes were honored at the nations Capitol in Washington D.C. Taking the limelight with such notable historical figures as Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and Astronauts, the Native Code Talkers and their prospective tribes were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.

A plethora of Senatorial and Congressional notables were present at the awards ceremony to include House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH), Tom Cole (R-OK), Ron Kind (D-WI), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV).

Also in attendance were family members and tribal leaders representing the Native Code Talkers as well as 96-year-old Edmond Harjo.

Speaker John Boehner opened the ceremony by applauding the efforts of Harjo who had recognized a fellow soldier’s language in 1944 and was later utilized by the U.S. military as a code talker.

“Edmond and his brothers were at Normandy and Iwo Jima and they mobilized the weapon of language to thwart the fiercest enemy the free people have ever known and made a difference …join me in applauding their perseverance and the deeds that have been relegated to legend and may they now live in memory,” said Boehner.

Native American Congressman Tom Cole then shared his thoughts. “It is an enormous honor for me to get to share this moment with you – no one has fought against an alliance like Native Americans. Native Americans enlist at a higher rate than any ethnicity in this land. Most famous of those warriors are the Navajo code talkers of World War II, but 33 different tribes contributed to the code talkers.”

“From my home state of Oklahoma three are Choctaw, Comanche and Kiowa they saved lives and won battles. They did so by giving the United States the unique battlefield advantage of secure communication,” said Cole.

Similar appreciative sentiments were also given by Kind, Johnson, McConnell and Inhofe who also described ways code talkers were critical to war efforts. Their descriptions included how code talkers could decipher their messages instantly with 100 percent accuracy, while machines took up to 30 minutes to decipher alternative codes. Also, more than 800 battlefield communications were shared in the first 48 hours of Iwo Jima. Several speakers mentioned that code talkers enlisted at a time when they were not even honored as citizens.

Pelosi expressed appreciation for representing California as a state with the highest percentage of Native Americans before thanking the code talkers.

“The code talkers, using their language… committed to the cause of freedom. Their sense of duty was never shaken nor was their resolve. Their patriotism never wavered nor did their courage. Their bonds of brotherhood were never broken nor were their codes. Their heroism and sacrifice and these contributions went unrecognized for too long. It is a privilege for Congress to bestow the Native American code talkers the highest honor we can bestow, the Congressional Gold medal,” said Pelosi.

After Pelosi, Senator Reid delivered a poignantly truthful account of the history of Native people and their contribution to the war efforts of the United Sates.

“According to firsthand accounts from the pilgrims, who arrived to this continent, Native Americans did not farm the land so this wasn’t truly their land. According to the pioneers who pushed past the Mississippi, Native Americans were not civilized, so they didn’t truly own the land. According to the prospectors who rushed for the hills of Nevada, California and even Alaska, Native Americans did not speak English so they did not truly own the land.

“Strangers had forced the Native peoples from their lands slaughtered their game, stifled their religions outlawed their ceremonies and ravaged their communities…in the late 1800s, the United States government forced Native American children to attend English only boarding schools. Native children were torn from their families, taken far from home in boxcars and buggies, given English names, forced to cut their hair short and teachers beat the children with leather straps when they spoke their Native languages. The government told them their language had no value, but the children held onto their language, culture and history at great personal risk.”

“In this nation’s hour of greatest need these same Native American languages proved to have great value in the early years of World War II…Why would Native Americans, who had been robbed of their land and their culture agree to use their precious language to protect the country that had neglected and abused them for centuries? As one Navajo Native American code talker by the name of Chester Nez put it, ‘Somebody has got to defend this country, somebody has to defend freedom,” said Reid.

Watch the video here.



Native American code talkers to be honored

Francis Whitebird of the Sicangu Lakota Warriors leads people to the Committal Shelter during services for Lakota code talker Clarence Wolf Guts at the Black Hills National Cemetery outside Sturgis, S.D. Wolf Guts was the last living Lakota code talker. American Indians who sent coded messages to shield U.S. military communications from the enemy during World Wars I and II are being honored this week in Washington. (Ryan Soderlin / Rapid City Journal / June 22, 2010)

Francis Whitebird of the Sicangu Lakota Warriors leads people to the Committal Shelter during services for Lakota code talker Clarence Wolf Guts at the Black Hills National Cemetery outside Sturgis, S.D. Wolf Guts was the last living Lakota code talker. American Indians who sent coded messages to shield U.S. military communications from the enemy during World Wars I and II are being honored this week in Washington. (Ryan Soderlin / Rapid City Journal / June 22, 2010)

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — When Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the famous Navajo code talkers a decade ago, it failed to recognize members of other tribes who also used their native tongues to transmit wartime messages the enemy could not decipher.

This week, the “forgotten” heroes from 33 tribes will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

At least one code talker – 96-year-old Edmond Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma – is planning to attend the Capitol Hill ceremony Wednesday.

Representatives of tribes from as far away as Alaska also plan to be there.

“It’s been a long time coming, but much deserved,’’ A.J. Foster, a spokesman for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, told the Los Angeles Times.

In 2000, President Clintonsigned legislation awarding the medal to the Navajo code talkers, whose story was told in the 2002 movie “Windtalkers.’’

Eight years later, Congress approved and President George W. Bush signed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to recognize all Native American code talkers for their contributions during World Wars I and II.

During debate on the bill, then-Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) called the code talkers a “forgotten group of American war heroes.’’

“Native American Code Talkers of the First and Second World War are true American heroes without whose efforts our troops would have certainly suffered greater casualties and would have certainly experienced slower progress in their efforts to end these conflicts,’’ Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.),  a member of the Chickasaw Nation, said at the time. “For too long, our country has failed to recognize the efforts made by these great Native American citizens.’’

Delegations representing tribes from Arizona, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin also will attend  the ceremony, along with family members of code talkers.

Duplicate silver medals will be presented to about 200 code talkers and the families of those deceased, according to the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

In addition to the ceremony in the Capitol Visitor Center,  a reception will be held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, which is featuring an exhibit on the code talkers.

The government has been stepping up efforts to recognize World War II groups before it is too late.

President Obama signed legislation last summer to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 1st Special Service Force, the U.S.-Canadian commando unit immortalized in the 1968 movie “The Devil’s Brigade.’’

Legislation has been introduced to award gold medals to the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, Filipino World War II veterans and World War II members of the Civil Air Patrol.

World War II veterans have been dying at a rate of 420 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of 16 million World War II veterans, fewer than 1.2 million survive today. Only two World War II veterans still serve in Congress.

Congress has awarded gold medals to other World War II-era groups, including the Tuskegee Airmen; the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs; the first black Marines, known as the Montford Point Marines; and Japanese American members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.

Wednesday’s ceremony can be viewed online at

Activists Push For Laws Similar To Smoke-Free Arizona On Native American Land

By  Nick Blumberg, KJZZ

When Arizona voters banned smoking indoors several years ago, the law didn’t cover Native American land. Now, an anti-smoking activist is trying to pass smoking ban that will cover the Navajo Nation.

Dr. Leland Fairbanks is president of Arizonans Concerned About Smoking, which helped push through the Smoke-Free Arizona Act in 2006.

“55 percent of the reservation people, who are part of Arizona, voted for the Smoke-Free Arizona Initiative, but they said it doesn’t apply to them because they’re independent nations,” Fairbanks said. “So unfortunately they’ve already voted; they would like to have what we have in the rest of the state.”

Now, he’s trying to collect about 10,000 signatures to get an initiative on the 2014 Navajo ballot banning indoor smoking.

“Only Navajos who are registered voters can sign. It does include, though, Navajos who are off reservation,” Fairbanks said. “If you’re a Navajo registered voter and you’re working down here in Maricopa County or some other county, you can sign that initiative and you can vote.”

Fairbanks says the signature drive is set to begin in January.

The Government Shutdown Hits Indian Country Hard, On Many Fronts

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

The government shutdown continues into its third week as funds are drying up for many agencies struggling to remain open. Even with an end potentially in sight, the crisis has proven to be good for some areas of Indian country but has been very bad news for most of it.

The shutdown of non-essential government entities like national parks around the country has helped the tourism business for the Hualapai and Navajo Nation. Both tribes offer attractive alternatives to the Grand Canyon, which is closed. As NPR reports, the Hualapai who owns Grand Canyon West, offers a Plexiglas horseshoe walkway tour of the Canyon. The Navajos offer tours of Antelope Canyon – the often-neglected stepchild of the Grand Canyon.

“Tourism is the backbone of the tribe,” Matthew Putesoy, Havasupai vice chairman told NPR. “We really don’t have any other economic development.”

The lack of economic development is a situation that hurts many tribes. “One of the real casualties is our economic development projects,” Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, said in a phone interview with Indian Country Today Media Network. “We are working only on matters posing an imminent risk to life and property. I had a tribe that came in and was ready to close on a loan. The loan just needs a review and signature and we’re not able to do that, so that loan is not being funded yet.”

Washburn also mentioned a tribe waiting for a coal mine project review, and another waiting for a renewable energy project approval. “Everything has come to a screeching halt,” he said.

While the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education are running for the most part, social services are operating at minimal staff, according to Washburn. Social services and tribal assistance for heating are two areas of grave concern in Indian country as the harsh winter season approaches.

A New York Times article on October 13 followed Audrey Costa, a Native in Montana who is wondering where the money for the heat will come from. Costa, a mother of three, “relies on lease payments from the Bureau of Indian Affairs” and has yet to see a check since the shutdown.

Costa lives on the Crow Reservation, one of many impoverished Indian tribes that rely heavily on federal dollars according to The Times. The Crow tribe has continued to operate with a skeleton crew.

Skeleton crews are also operating in South Dakota, particularly the Pine Ridge Reservation, which was just hit with an unexpected blizzard. The storm brought 70-mile-per-hour winds and blinding snow, and trapped at least 60,000 cattle throughout Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota. The exact number of cattle lost on the Pine Ridge Reservation is unknown, as the slim crew continues to search the almost 3,500 square mile reservation. This job was made even tougher by power outages caused by the storm.

RELATED: Entombed in Snow: Up to 100,000 Cattle Perished Where They Stood in Rogue South Dakota Blizzard

On October 11, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) shared stories of tribal families in North Dakota being put in difficult situations during her speech on the Senate floor. North Dakota was also pounded by the recent snowstorm that hit the plains. “The stories that I heard I want to share with this body today, Mr. President, because they are telling stories about how foolish – how foolish and how dangerous – this government shutdown is to many, many, very, very vulnerable families, particularly vulnerable Native American families.” (Most of the tribes in North Dakota are direct service tribes which rely on the BIA for much of the assistance.)

“Because of the shutdown, BIA Law Enforcement at the Spirit Lake Nation is limited to one officer per shift, in charge of patrolling the 252,000 acre reservation,” Heitkamp said. “And because of the shutdown, when the Sisseton-Wahpeton community recently lost a three month old baby, the mother now has been turned away for burial assistance for her child.”

According to a press release from Heitkamp’s office, the majority of the BIA offices – which provide services to more than 1.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives from more than 500 recognized tribes – is now shuttered. This means funding has been cut off for foster care payments, nutrition programs, and financial assistance for struggling Native families.

According to Washburn, the BIA has roughly 1,600 employees still working while another 2,500 are furloughed. “Everyone of those 2,500 furloughed employees has an important job serving Indian tribes and they aren’t able to do that right now,” Washburn said.

For the Oglala Sioux and its Pine Ridge Reservation, this shuttering will result in the release of prisoners, hundreds of tribal employees furloughed and a suspension in the heating assistance to elderly tribal members according to The Rapid City Journal.

“It is a devastating situation, not a political debate,” Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer said in the statement via The Journal. “Our people suffer the worst poverty in the country. It is unthinkable to have to close programs, stop services and turn people out of their jobs. In an area with 80 percent unemployment, furloughs are a humanitarian disaster.”

Like Brewer, Darrin Old Coyote, Crow tribal chairman, does not agree with the way the shutdown is being handled. “They don’t have a clue what’s going on out here,” Coyote said in The Times of politicians in Washington. He was speaking from his office in Crow Agency, which sits in the shadow of the Little Bighorn battlefield, itself closed because of the shutdown. “It is hurting a lot of people.”

“[The shutdown is] going to be more and more damaging the longer it goes,” Washburn told ICTMN. “And the longer and longer it goes on it will be harder for us to ramp back up…

“We are feeling for everyone out there in Indian country.”



Floods Hit 50 Navajo Nation Chapters Across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah this Week

Source: Native News Network

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZONA – Since Monday, nearly 50 chapters have called for assistance in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Chinle was hardest hit by the floods as 22 people had to be evacuated from their homes. The floods continued downstream to Many Farms and Rock Point where another 40 people were either evacuated or rescued. In Tonalea, Arizona, officials reported that 20 homes were damaged due to flooding.

Navajo Nation floods

Most of the flash flooding happens after short bursts of intense rain.


“I want our people to know we are working with several different agencies to ensure that our people are safe and their basic needs are met,”

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said, In an attempt to calm concerns.

“Though we are thankful for the rain we have received, I want our people to know that the Navajo Nation programs and departments are responding to calls regarding flash flooding. Please be careful and don’t drive or cross flooded roadways. We want everyone to make through the rains safely,”

President Shelly said.

President Shelly has been getting regular updates about flooded communities throughout the week.

“We need everyone to exercise caution and be alert to their surroundings. Though it might not be raining in your area, it can be raining in areas upstream,”

said Navajo Department of Emergency Management Director Rose Whitehair.

Whitehair added that it is difficult to predict what areas would experience flash flooding since most of the flooding happens after short bursts of intense rain.

“And with the long term drought, the ground is hard so there is nowhere for the water to go,”

Whitehair said.

County and state emergency departments have all been coordinating efforts with the Navajo Department of Emergency Management along with the Red Cross, the Hopi Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“I want to thank all the first responders and agencies for working together. I know you are all working hard but remember the work you are doing is for the good of all the people in need. We are a strong nation and we will endure through these difficult times,”

President Shelly said.

Since July nearly 60 chapters have reported to the Navajo Department of Emergency seeking assistance for damages occurred as a result of flooding. Issues have been from road washouts, road closures, rescue operations, shelter for flood victims and road clearing.

President Shelly signed a declaration of emergency in August regarding the flooding and plans are to update the declaration for recent flood events.

Navajo Department of Emergency Management and chapters are working according to a declaration of emergency that President Shelly signed in August.

For those unfamiliar with the Navajo Nation, a chapter is a unit of local government most similar to townships found in most midwestern and northeastern states of the US and Canadian provinces.

U.S. Marshals arrest accused rapist in Navajo

The Daily Times staff

FARMINGTON , NM— U.S. Marshals arrested an accused rapist in the town of Navajo on Thursday.

Courtesy of San Juan County Adult Detention Center (null)

Courtesy of San Juan County Adult Detention Center (null)

Peter Andrew Ernst, 26, was arrested on suspicion of five counts of criminal sexual penetration, assault, aggravated battery, kidnapping and failure to register as a sex offender, according to a San Juan County Sheriff’s Office news release.

Ernst allegedly raped a woman at a home in Aztec. The victim reported the rape to sheriff’s office investigators at an Aztec gas station last month.

When police learned of the attack, Ernst left the area for Navajo, about 100 miles south of Aztec.

Ernst is a convicted sex offender, and he last registered in Arizona in 2012, according to the news release.

A U.S Marshals Service fugitive apprehension team went to Navajo and arrested Ernst on Thursday.

He is being held at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

Navajo, Urban Outfitters fail to reach settlement

Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Navajo Nation and Urban Outfitters have failed to reach a settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging trademark violations.

The tribe sued the clothing retailer and its subsidiaries last year to keep them from using the “Navajo” name or variations of it on their products.

U.S. District Judge Lorenzo Garcia in New Mexico had thrown out all deadlines for discovery and responses to motions while settlement discussions took place. The parties wrote to the court this week saying that mediation has been unsuccessful.

The parties say no other mediation sessions are planned.

Urban Outfitters argues that “Navajo” is a generic term for a style or design and has asserted counter claims. It is seeking a declaration of non-infringement and cancellation of the tribe’s federal trademark registrations.

Read more here:

Navajo Nation will support NM horse processing plant

By Rob Nikolewski, New Mexico Watch Dog

The Navajo Nation is about to wade into the heated debate over a horse-meat processing plant in Roswell and will support Valley Meat Co. becoming the first horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. in seven years.

“They’re eating up the land and drinking all the water,” Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley told New Mexico Watchdog of the feral horses on Navajo Nation land that encompasses 27,425 square miles, including parts of Arizona and Utah as well as a large section of northwest New Mexico.

Zah estimated there are 20,000 to 30,000 “feral horses on our lands,” and that Navajo Nation lawyers in Washington, D.C., are in the process of finalizing a letter that Shelly will sign in support of the horse slaughter facility “with the next couple of days.”

COMING OUT IN FAVOR: The Navajo Nation is about to come out in favor of a controversial horse slaughter facility in Roswell, NM. Photo from Facebook.

COMING OUT IN FAVOR: The Navajo Nation is about to come out in favor of a controversial horse slaughter facility in Roswell, NM. Photo from Facebook.


“I’m sympathetic to the native nations but all this is going to do is make New Mexico the slaughter state,” said Phil Carter of Animal Protection New Mexico, one of the facility’s opponents. “We have to move forward beyond this outdated and cruel slaughter model.”

The debate over the facility in Roswell has sparked heated arguments that extend beyond state borders.

Opponents of the facility include Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, former Gov. Bill Richardson, state Attorney General Gary King and State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, as well as actor Robert Redford and animal rights groups. The Humane Society of the United States is one of a slew of plaintiffs seeking an injunction to stop the company from opening its slaughterhouse operations.

Supporters say that given the rising cost of hay, horses have been abandoned and left to starve. They argue it’s better to have unwanted and dying horses killed in a federall -inspected facility in the U.S. than have them sent to plants in places like Mexico, where they often meet gruesome deaths in unsanitary conditions.

“Which would you rather do, put them down in a humane fashion or let them starve to death,” the facility’s attorney Blair Dunn said earlier this month.

The debate has become more intense as Valley Meat Co. hopes to open as soon as Aug. 5. A federal court hearing is set for Friday in Albuquerque

Last Saturday, a fire broke out at the company and officials suspect it may have been deliberately set. The blaze burned part of the exterior of Valley Meat Co.’s building and damaged a refrigeration unit. A Chaves County sheriff’s lieutenant described the fire as “very suspicious.”

“It was an act of domestic terrorism,” Dunn told the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership Tuesday.

Zah said the Navajo Nation’s decision to weigh in on the matter is “more economic” than anything else.

“We’re already in a drought,” Zah said. “We already have our registered cattle and sheep and registered horses to care for. We’re concerned about water and vegetation” being eaten by feral horses.

Zah said a horse slaughter facility in Roswell is simply closer and more cost-effective.

“We need some place to take them,” he said. “There are other options but they are more costly … The plant Roswell provides us this opportunity.”

But Carter says there are other options, including injecting horses with contraceptives, gelding stallions and euthanizing them.

But isn’t that expensive?

Carter points to the New Mexico Equine Protection Fund that his group administers and says the cost to tending to feral horses has been reduced to about $200 per head. “And there’s no reason those costs couldn’t come down more,” Carter said.

“They’re sacred animals,” Zah acknowledged but added, “We also have a kinship with our land. There’s a delicate balance there. Everything is related, everything is intertwined. When one is out of balance, we have to take care of that delicate balance.”

Supporters of the plant have estimated there are 9,000 feral horses on Mescalero Apache land in southern New Mexico. Numerous phone calls from New Mexico Watchdog to Alfred LaPaz, acting president of the Mescalero tribe, seeking comment have gone unanswered.

Navajo ‘Star Wars’ Cast, Set for July 3 Premiere

Indian Country Today Media Network

Casting for the Navajo-language version of Star Wars has completed, and Navajo Nation Museum director Manuelito Wheeler is confident in the selections. “All the people that were cast fit the voice perfectly and they gave awesome performances,” he said, according to the Navajo Times.

Several of those cast offered personal thoughts on the characters they are voicing. The actor chosen to play Obi-Wan Kenobi compared the old Jedi master to a Navajo medicine man, while the actress who’ll play Princess Leia said she felt that her own personality mirrored that of Carrie Fisher’s character. The actor chosen for Darth Vader is a coach at Rock Point High, and said that he identified with Vader’s leadership skills. The role of Han Solo — Star Wars‘ cocky “scoundrel” — went to James Junes of the comedy duo James and Ernie.

Radmilla Cody, former Miss Navajo Nation and a 2013 Grammy Nominee, auditioned — alas, unsuccessfully — for the part of Princess Leia. “It was quite the experience in the sense that it was fun, nerve wrecking, and exciting all at once!” she tells ICTMN. “At one point during the audition, I was reminded of the Miss Navajo pageant panel questions. I am excited for everyone involved especially Shi yazh Herman Cody who did the voice-over for Uncle Owen.”

Organizers are keeping the identity of the actor who’ll voice bronze protocol robot C-3PO a secret. According to, some 115 Navajos attended the casting, which took place May 3 and 4. In all, 20 actors were chosen to lend their voices to the production, says Dan Bloom of

In a recent interview with NPR, Wheeler revealed some of the plans for the premiere. “The premiere sponsor that came forward was Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation,” Wheeler said. “They do that Navajo Nation Fair and the Fourth of July fair. So, I will premiere it at the Fourth of July celebration on July 3. We have a grandstand there on the fairgrounds and we are having a screen built on a semi-flatbed trailer. So, when we’re ready we’ll drive that out and set up chairs … and have popcorn for as many as we can make popcorn for.”

The following Navajo-speakers have been chosen:

Luke Skywalker: Terry Teller (Lukachukai, Arizona)
Princess Leia: Clarissa Yazzie (Layton, Utah)
Darth Vader: Marvin Yellowhair (Rough Rock, Arizona)
Han Solo: James Junes (Farmington, New Mexico)
Grand Moff Tarkin: James Bilagody (Tuba City, Arizona)
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Anderson Kee (Cottonwood, Arizona)
Aunt Beru: Elsa Johnson (Scottsdale, Arizona)
Uncle Owen: Herman Cody (Ganado, Arizona)
C-3PO: To Be Announced



Deadline looming for settlement in Urban Outfitters case

By Alysa Landry
Navajo Times
WASHINGTON, May 30, 2013


T he marketing of Navajo arts and crafts has a complex history with deep ties to economics and tribal identity, but one thing remains simple: the Navajo name belongs to the people.

That’s according to Brian Lewis, an attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice who has headed the tribe’s case against Urban Outfitters since the company began marketing Navajo-themed clothing and accessories in 2011.

The Nation “has the exclusive right to use its Navajo name and trademarks on products that are marketed and retailed as being authentically Navajo,” Lewis said. “People who buy products with the name and trademark ‘Navajo’ expect that those products will have valid association with the Navajo Nation and Navajo people.”

The case, which last week was placed on hold as the parties work toward a settlement, is expected to set precedent as the Nation seeks to curb the theft of intellectual property and emerge as the sole and rightful owner of its name.

Although the case appears novel, it is not, Lewis said.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act, passed in 1990, came as a response to individuals and corporations that misrepresented products as Indian-made. The law prohibits any marketing or sale of items in a manner that falsely suggests they are made by American Indians.

“Corporate theft of property from Indians … is old school,” Lewis said. “It was non-Indian corporations’ profiting from posing their products as having been made by Native Americans that led to the enactment of the (law) in the first place.”

The point of the law, and of the Navajo Nation’s lawsuit against Urban Outfitters, is to maintain credibility with consumers, he said.

The tribe is seeking monetary damages from the company of up to seven or eight figures, Lewis said. It also “looks to stop this kind of deceptive behavior to keep the integrity of its property and protect consumers from getting tricked.”

“The first appropriate outcome if for Urban Outfitters to stop making money off the unlawful use of the Navajo Nation’s intellectual property,” Lewis said. “The second appropriate outcome here is for Urban Outfitters to compensate the Navajo Nation for the profits the company made.”

In short, the tribe wants consumers to rest assured that when they buy products labeled “Navajo,” they are, indeed, manufactured by members of the tribe.

Ownership of the Navajo name – and of the arts and crafts associated with it – is complicated, however.

According to author Erika Marie Bsumek, who researched Navajo culture in the marketplace from the return from Fort Sumner until the 1940s, many of the traditional crafts became symbols of a romanticized and primitive culture.

The Navajo historically worked in silver and wool, creating items for household uses or adornment, Bsumek wrote. Yet with the arrival of Anglo settlers – and their discovery of the Navajo crafts – the industry shifted into a complex framework where arts and crafts became part of a broader economic landscape.

This resulted in complicated links between the tourism industry and Navajo identity, which often was portrayed as primitive and vanishing despite the tribe’s growing numbers, Bsumek wrote. The tourism industry and anthropologists constructed a Navajo identity “with little or no input from Navajos themselves.”

“For a good majority of consumers, goods made by Indians were infused with symbolic, material and cultural capital,” she wrote. “Navajo blankets and jewelry were prestigious in that they conveyed a set of racialized beliefs, represented a financial investment and transmitted a series of meanings about modernity and civilization to the whites who purchased them.”

With such a history, it is no surprise that the tribe guards its name and strives to protect it from companies that might further dilute its identity, said Richard Stim, a San Francisco-based trademark attorney who is watching the Nation’s case against Urban Outfitters. The Navajo Nation has proven to be a leader among tribes in protecting its name, he said.

“The whole point of trademark law is to not confuse the consumer,” he said. “The Navajo Nation has been very active. It has taken the initiative to protect its name.”

In its lawsuit, the Nation claims the Pennsylvania-based Urban Outfitters violated trademark laws and marketed items that were disrespectful to the Navajo culture, including underwear and a liquor flask. Urban Outfitters is an international retail company that markets and retails its merchandise in more than 200 stores and online. Its brands include Anthropologie and Free People.

The company claims American Indian-inspired prints have shown up in the fashion industry for years and that it’s common for designers to borrow from other cultures. The company claims the term “Navajo” is generic and it is seeking a declaration of non-infringement and cancellation of the tribe’s federal trademark registrations.

“The term ‘navajo’ is a common, generic term widely used in the industry and by customers to describe a design/style or feature of clothing and clothing accessories, and therefore, is incapable of trademark protection,” the company said in court documents. It argues that the Nation has not taken action during the years third parties used the term, therefore abandoning its rights to the name.

The company also asserts that it sells “hip clothing and merchandise” to “culturally sophisticated young adults” and in no way competes with Navajo arts and crafts, which generally are not sold in “specialty retail centers, upscale street locations and enclosed malls.”

“Nothing in the title of the store, the layouts of the stores or the manner in which any of the goods are marketed or sold suggests in any way that Urban Outfitters is marketing or selling products supplied by the Navajo Nation,” the company said in court documents. It argues that many other upscale clothing retailers also are marketing American Indian-themed merchandise.

The tribe holds at least 10 trademarks on its name, covering clothing, footwear, household products, textiles and online retail sales. It has used the name “Navajo” since 1894 and has 86 trademarks registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Urban Outfitters, however, contends that the Nation does not hold those trademarks.

The two sides have wrangled over rights to the name since 2012 when the Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters, which was marketing more than 20 products, including jackets, earrings, scarves and sneakers, as “Navajo” or “Navaho.”

In January, the court denied Urban Outfitters’ motion to have the case transferred from New Mexico to Pennsylvania. Last week, a U.S. District Court judge in Albuquerque threw out all deadlines for discovery and responses in the case. The two sides have until July 29 to agree on a mediator for settlement discussions.

The case has gained notoriety not only because of the absurdity of the Navajo-themed underwear, which has sparked outrage and controversy from other tribes and activists, but also because it raises questions about who can profit from a name.

“This case is about a multi-billion-dollar corporation having profited from misrepresentations that its products were associated with the Navajo Nation and American Indians,” Lewis said. “Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation and American Indians lost out from consumers’ having being duped.”

The stakes are higher in a trademark case when the name describes a community or ethnic group, Lewis said.

Some consumers “have an affinity with the Navajo Nation and its people and they purchase Navajo products, which they know are associated with the unique and distinctive institution and its members,” he said. “This expectation of a connection is undermined when a company puts the same Navajo name and trademark on its products … in competition with the products that are authentically connected to the Navajo Nation.”

Stim hopes the case sets precedent and forces big retailers to think twice before they use the names of ethnic groups in marketing.

“It’s like Walt Disney saying ‘Don’t mess with Snow White,'” he said. “I hope this sets a big precedent. I hope it sends the message to other clothing retailers so they don’t go near this.”