The Maasai People Take Back Their Brand

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In East Africa, you can find the semi-nomadic Maasai people herding cattle, wearing intricate jewelry, and performing jubilant dances. Elsewhere, you can find “Masai” sneakers (in British shoe stores), “Masai” tinted panoramic windows (on Land Rovers), and bright-blue “Masai” beach towels (at Louis Vuitton boutiques).

Many other companies have similarly co-opted the Maasai name, perhaps hoping that it will lend their wares a patina of earthiness or exoticism. Now the tribe would like to claim a share of the profits. To that end, some of its elders are working to trademark its customs and name, with the help of a nonprofit called Light Years IP, which specializes in “intellectual property value capture.” Ron Layton, the head of Light Years, has said that the Maasai “brand” might be worth more than $10 million a year.

Getting that money isn’t going to be easy: for one thing, the group will have to fight all the corporate players who have already registered the name. As Ben Goodger, a British lawyer, told me, “the Maasai tribe may have to take their place in line to apply for Maasai.”

Such challenges notwithstanding, more and more indigenous groups are staking claims to their traditional knowledge. Last year, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters over rights to its name; New Zealand has granted patents to the Maori; India recently offered a trademark to tribes making herbal medicines. Compared with these efforts, the Maasai’s branding battle will be more global in scope, but the tribe isn’t the first to go up against a seemingly unassailable target. The Sami, a group of indigenous Artic dwellers, have already taken on Santa Claus—or at any rate, a Finnish tourist attraction called Santa Claus Village. Among their gripes: that the Sami people’s customary blue-and-red outfit has been used to costume the park’s paid “elves.”

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Olga Khazan is The Atlantic's global editor.

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