A Nation. Not a Brand

Navajo-produced film marks milestone anniversary, as court protects group’s name

(Photos Left) Alta Kahn, mother of Susie Benally, films her daughter weaving a belt, 1966. Photo courtesy of Penn Museum.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking film project, “Navajo Film Themselves.”

How ironic that it comes in the same year in which the Navajo Nation took back its image from commercial retailers, namely Philadelphia-founded Urban Outfitters and its Anthropologie subsidiary, against whom a federal judge ruled regarding use of the Navajo name.

The suit alleged trademark infringement, trademark dilution, unfair competition, false advertising, violation of commercial practices law, and violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. In June 2011, the tribe asked the company to discontinue use of the Navajo name in labeling its products, citing its use on the retailer’s underwear line and a flask. The group’s attorney noted that the Navajo Nation had “long banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within its borders … and does not use its mark in conjunction with alcohol.”

Compare such usage to the images that flicker from the seven short films that came from the 1966 collaboration between Annenberg School for Communication Professor Sol Worth, anthropologist John Adair and Penn graduate student Richard Chalfen.

The Penn Museum held a screening and discussion of the experimental set of films on June 11th. It was followed by a questions and answer session with panel members Kate Pourshariati, Penn Museum Film Archivist; Vanessa Iyua, Associate Director, Greenfield Intercultural Center, University of Pennsylvania; and Stephanie Mach, Penn Museum Student Engagement Coordinator and Penn graduate student in anthropology.

A museum press release stated, “The short films created in and around the [Pine Springs, Arizona] community … proved to be as diverse as the filmmakers themselves.”

The films feature a diversity of subjects: Navajo silversmiths and weavers; two young sisters who had grown up largely outside the community; and a young artist enigmatically named Intrepid Shadows.

The museum states that Adair and Worth’s research drew on both communications and anthropological theory. They “wanted to know if it was possible to teach filmmaking techniques to members of a culture vastly different from their own without imparting the vocabulary of Western film traditions.”

The films and the researchers became world renowned, and their success was followed up by the publishing of a 1972 book, “Through Navajo Eyes,” considered one of the cornerstone texts of visual anthropology.

Visionmaker, a Native American video distributor, partnered with the Penn Museum and has made the films available for purchase on DVD. The museum has additionally created a website about the film, www.penn.museum/sites/navajofilmthemselves/

Much has likely changed in the 50 years since the films were produced, but Navajo are still not a commercial brand for underwear and flasks.

The Associated Press reported that court documents did not quantify what amount the Navajo Nation could recover if it wins the lawsuit. It said however a recent decision ruled that the Indian Arts and Crafts Act allows a minimum $1,000 a day for each type of good sold or on display for sale.


A Nation. Not a Brand
Sheila Simmons - Contributor

Sheila Simmons brings many years of writing and communications experience to her work for Liberty City Press. She began her professional writing career at the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered Business, City Hall and Education.


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