Culture Fail: “Manifest Destiny” – Prejudice, Not Fashion

Remember that phase about a decade ago when all us silly Caucasian-Americans wanted Chinese characters tattooed on our bodies? Remember how cool and exotic we all thought it was, and how stupid we looked to anyone of actual Chinese descent?

Well the culture-deaf idiots are back, and this time they’re targeting Native Americans.

Gap was recently forced to pull a printed t-shirt from its shelves that had the words “Manifest Destiny” displayed boldly across the chest. While these two words have different meanings in various contexts, in our country they refer to the 19th century idea that the US was destined to conquer the world—you know, expand US territories beyond the Louisiana border, go to war with Mexico in the 1840s, and, most obviously, kill and/or displace thousands of Native Americans. Still feel like wearing that t-shirt?

While GAP responded to wide-ranging criticisms by removing the shirt from their shops and online store, Mark McNairy, the t-shirt’s designer, unapologetically tweeted, “MANIFEST DESTINY. SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST.” I’m imagining him yelling this (his tweet is in caps, after all), arms flung dramatically wide, from the balcony of his shiny 30th story high-rise apartment. Then he gets pooped on by a pigeon or three hundred.

Of course this isn’t even close to the only example of Native American-themed fashion aberrations. Urban Outfitters recently created a line of “Navajo” items, including the ever-so-Native American “Navajo Hipster Panty,” and the “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask”—wow, right? After enough complaints, and the Navajo Nation of Arizona’s cease and desist order for the use of the word “Navajo” (they actually own the trademark), the items became “Printed” rather than “Navajo.”

Interestingly, some of the negative feedback here, even from Native Americans, is not about the use of culturally-important art and styles—much criticism stems from the complete lack of creativity in the designs used by companies like Urban Outfitters, and even Hello Kitty, with their recent line of “Aztec-inspired accessories.” Rather than encouraging designers to really explore and exemplify the colors, shapes, and sheer creativity of Native American art, Urban Outfitters willingly slapped some orange diamonds on some boring stuff, and called it “Navajo.” Fortunately, a plethora of critics rightly called it “BS.”

We can hope to someday live in a world where any culturally-themed fashion carries a message of respect for a particular art form or group of people. Better yet, a world where more Native American designers themselves are embraced by the masses (check out Native Max, a new magazine that focuses on Native American culture and styles). Until then, don’t stop making noise.

by Genevieve Weber