Native institute sues Neiman Marcus over this coat design - Must Read Alaska
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Sunday, September 27, 2020
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Native institute sues Neiman Marcus over this coat design

Neiman Marcus Group reported on Monday that it will file for bankruptcy protection as early as this week, making it the first major department store to collapse under the weight of the COVID-19 coronavirus economy.

But that wasn’t all the bad news for the fashion house.

On Monday,  Sealaska Heritage Institute filed a federal lawsuit against Neiman Marcus, alleging the retailer falsely affiliated garments sold by them with Native artisans through its use of the term “Ravenstail.”

The lawsuit says that the term “Ravenstail” refers to “one of the great weaving traditions of the northern Northwest Coast Native tribes,” and that the clothing retailer “unlawfully infringed the copyright of a famous Northwest Coast artist.”

That artist is the late weaver Clarissa Rizal, formerly known as Clarissa Hudson ne Lampe. Rizal’s mother was Tlingit and her father was a Filipino immigrant. She graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School and found her avocation as a traditional Tlingit weaver, perhaps the most celebrated of her generation. She died in 2016 in Colorado.

The rights to the robe, “Discovering the Angles of an Electrified Heart,” were passed to Rizal’s heirs upon Rizal’s death in 2016. Her heirs registered the work with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2019 and exclusively licensed it to Sealaska Heritage Institute, the lawsuit says.

[See a collection of Rizal’s weavings at this link]

The institute is asking for an injunction against Neiman Marcus and its parent companies, prohibiting them from selling the coat, which is referred to in their description as a “Ravenstail Knitted Coat.” The garmet retails for more than $2,550. The nonprofit also seeks statutory, compensatory, punitive and other damages.

Sealaska Heritage Institute states that it is telling the world that “the sale of ancient art practices through people other than Native artists will not be tolerated.”

“In our opinion, this retail garment looks like a Ravenstail robe, and it features a replica of a design that is protected by copyright. It’s one of the most blatant examples of cultural appropriation and copyright infringement that I’ve ever seen,” said Institute President Rosita Worl.

“The unlawful taking of Indigenous intellectual property has to stop,” she said.

Any funds derived from the lawsuit will be shared with the family that owns the copyright to the Ravenstail robe from which the design was taken and invested in an arts and culture endowment, the institute stated.

The Dallas-based fashion retailer company has had to temporarily close all of its 43 stores and is now attempting to renegotiate millions of dollars in debt. Most of the company’s employees have been furloughed during the pandemic.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Clearly a rip-off. Absolutely gorgeous Chilkat robes that are priceless. An ugly-*ss knock off coat for $2,555. Gross. Go get em’

  • Native inspired is not the same as a trademark violation.

  • To this native it looks more African Tribal or South Pacific Islanders design.

  • Really dumb move. NM is filing for bankruptcy protection. Anymore fleece(ing) out there? ps. my face mask is a Native design.

    • Yeah, next they will be suing the Seahawks for their design. Lighten up folks. Bigger fish to fry right now.

  • Doesn’t look Alaskian or Native American at all. Kinda looks like a Pancho. It’s a reach.

  • If it was made in China we know that there aren’t any intellectual rights there.

  • This is very interesting because based on her life span 1956-2016, it appears she was using a tessellation technique made popular by M.C. Escher 1898-1972. So she was plagiarizing someone else’s work, and now her heirs are suing over it. That would be my line of defense if I was Neiman’s lawyer, that their item was using Escher’s design, not Rizal’s, as could very well be the case.

    • Eschers’ designs look absolutely nothing like Rizal’s robe. Scratching my head here.

  • Supposedly (at least according to one of my art professors) Picasso said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” I doubt Picasso was just referring to his African period, but can you imagine if that material was being produced today?

    Bigger picture, isn’t cultural appropriation what has made us the smartest monkeys on the planet?

  • Historically, SE AK Native artifacts were household items made by whichever member had the time and a little skill. Artistic decoration was added if there was enough leisure time. Leisure time was the time not needed for bare survival. Wealth was measured by by how much leisure time anyone had in abundance.
    When food was plentiful, and there were no wars with neighboring tribes, they had time to decorate utilitarian household items, their homes, boats, and also to “pay” especially talented tribe members to carve totems and decorate whatever.
    Some families were better than others in “politics” (or by simply being stronger) and were able to position themselves within the tribe and/or clan bettor situated. Thy became/were the “High Casts”.
    The High Casts were able to accumulate “wealth” and were able to afford “paying” the most talented artisans. Often they would “stimulate the economy” by having a Pot-latch, wherein they would destroy some of their wealth for bragging rights. The tribal members went along with this because it put the artisans, and everyone else back to work, making replacement things.
    Most SE AK Native art has minimal artistic value, having mostly historical collector value. The truly artistic works, which have survived, are few. These works almost always have the artists “signature” which was also the artists “copyright”. It’s usually in the pattern of secondary elements. An ear, foot, eye, or whatever. The primary elements were usually the intellectual property of the family, clan, or tribe.
    Anthropologists have consistently failed to see this, which gave rise to “copyright infringement”. The Chilkat robes have especially subtle “signature copyrights” woven into the patterns. These “copyrights” have no expiration date. They’re still in effect. They were created long before modern copyrights were effected.
    You can’t confirm any of this because it’s not in any anthropologists books. They never figured out the “copyright” part of most Native art.. Their culture blinded them.
    This is my work. Joseph Darwin James

    • A case can be made that the elements within SE AK Native art was also an written language. It can be read, like any other written language, except that the “words” were scattered seemingly random throughout the work. They’re not scattered. There are individual patterns according to each of the more renowned artists.
      During some important events, the artists themselves, or someone who was familiar with the artists pattern (grammar) were called on to “read” the work. This wasn’t an exact science, more like reading from brief, random notes.
      Only authorized persons were allowed to “read” the works. The stories after all were private histories.

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