Urban Outfitters' smudge kit is insensitive cultural appropriation for the low price of $39.99

This week, Urban Outfitters came under scrutiny for its sale of a “Local Branch Smudge Kit” ($39.99 on sale from $52.00), a sort of pseudo-ceremonial kit marketed towards hipsters as “energy balancing” that contains a wild turkey smudging feather, stoneware smudging dish, candle and instructions.

Many indigenous people feel this is cultural appropriation. What is the big deal? To start with, there is not just one Native American culture; there are hundreds across the U.S. and Canada. Secondly, repeated missteps by retailers and non-indigenous fashion designers could be avoided if they took the opportunity to engage with indigenous communities in an authentic way, instead of commodifying and misappropriating sacred symbols. Simply put: If Urban Outfitters loves the aboriginal esthetic, maybe they should hire some aboriginal fashion designers and artists.

The manufacturers of the smudge kit are Mackenzie Edgerton and Blaine Vossler, a white couple who call themselves pioneers, live in an Airstream trailer, and also sell Old West-inspired cellphone holsters, bison beanies and shirts featuring buffalo and Native American arrowheads.

Reducing a sacred symbol for aboriginals to product sku number 34519397 is problematic, says Max FineDay, president of the Students’ Union at the University of Saskatchewan. FineDay, a young aboriginal man, grew up around indigenous activism. His involvements with indigenous issues are primarily in politics, but he doesn’t miss a chance to speak out against cultural appropriation.

“The smudge kit shows a deep, deep ignorance about indigenous ceremonies, protocols, and laws that exist around use of medicine,” FineDay said. “Selling a ‘kit’ that they market as a New Age/native-inspired answer to relieving stress from your nine-to-five grind is deeply disrespectful for those of us who still practise our traditional ceremonies.”

The kit is just the latest misstep for Urban Outfitters. Last year, it found itself in legal trouble for its tacky line of “Navajo Hipster” panties and flasks. The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit alleging breach of trademark and violations under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which prohibits misleading marketing of American Indian goods in the U.S. As of press time, the smudge kit has been quietly taken down from Urban Outfitters’ website. They could not be reached for comment.

It gets tiring to call out corporations for appropriating aboriginal symbols. Whether it’s war bonnets or smudge kits, after repeated offenses, they should know better. Says FineDay, “there’s an opportunity here for Urban Outfitters to change what is accepted in the fashion industry — they should rise to the challenge.”

Danielle Paradis is a writer from Edmonton. She writes about aboriginal issues, gender, education and pop culture.

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