Sealaska Heritage sues Neiman Marcus alleging unlawful use of term “Ravenstail,” copyright infringement

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Sealaska Heritage Institute has filed a federal lawsuit against Neiman Marcus.

    The lawsuit claims the luxury retailer falsely affiliated garments sold by them with Native artisans through its use of the term "Ravenstail"

    Ravenstail is one of the great weaving traditions of the northern Northwest Coast Native tribes.

    The lawsuit claims Neiman Marcus unlawfully infringed the copyright of a famous Northwest Coast artist.

    The lawsuit requests an injunction against Neiman Marcus and its parent companies prohibiting them from selling the pice.

    They have marketed it as a "Ravenstail Knitted Coast.  It sells for more than $2,500.

    The lawsuit also seeks statutory, compensatory, punitive and other damages.

    Any funds received from the lawsuit will be shared equally with the family that owns the copyright to the Ravenstail robe.

    SHI President Rosita Worl said SHI 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,” Worl alleged.

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

    The lawsuit accuses Neiman Marcus of violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), a federal law enacted in 1935 to ensure that products marketed and sold as “Indian” are actually made by Native Americans or Alaska Natives. The complaint stems from the company’s use of the term “Ravenstail.”​

    Ravenstail weaving is a unique, intricate and highly complex geometric art style invented by Native people of the northern Northwest Coast.  Existing written and traditional evidence supports the manufacture and use of Ravenstail robes by the Tlingit, and the use of blankets in this weaving style by the Haida, Tsimshian and Sugpiaq/Alutiiq tribes. Contemporary weavers of these tribes, such as Haida weaver Evelyn Vanderhoop, also highlight the claim to this weaving tradition based on oral history passed down from generation to generation.

    The oldest example of Ravenstail weaving was excavated by Frederica de Laguna, an ethnologist, anthropologist, and archaeologist, and Francis Riddel in Yakutat Bay, Alaska, according to the book “Native Art: Tradition, Innovation, Continuity” by Susan Fair. In the book, de Laguna is quoted as saying Ravenstail blankets were being made by the northern Tlingit in the late 18th century.

    The term “Ravenstail” has been exclusively associated with the material culture of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian for hundreds of years, and the defendants’ use of the famous and distinctive Ravenstail term in connection with the sale of its coat falsely suggests the product originated from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, the lawsuit alleges.

    “The use of the term ‘Ravenstail’ implies it came from northern Northwest Coast tribal people,” Worl alleged.

     

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