Does the Shoe Fit? Native Nike footwear raises concerns

by Rob Capriccioso
News From Indian Country

To much fanfare, the multi-billion dollar Nike shoe company in September announced the creation of the Native Air N7, which it hailed as a “first-of-a-kind performance shoe” meant to address “the specific fit and width requirements for the Native American foot.”

Nike officials say it’s intended to get more Indians moving and to help combat increasingly alarming obesity rates in Indian Country.

But something about the shoe smells sort of funny to a growing number of Indians who believe the project is culturally insensitive and amounts to racial profiling, despite explanations from Nike officials meant to combat those fears.

“My initial reaction was of concern,” says Robert Odawa Porter, a Seneca and director of the Indigenous Law program at Syracuse University. “In almost all instances when corporate America starts looking at Native people, it’s usually in some very superficial, stereotypical kind of way.”

Some vocal opponents of the Air Native N7 believe the shoe line indeed fosters stereotypes because, along with the company’s trademark swoosh, the footwear features feathers, arrowheads, sunset designs and circle of life motifs. Nike officials have said the product is designed to “deliver sustainable innovation,” and the “N7” portion of its name is meant to encourage “a seventh generation ethos.”

“In my opinion, the whole idea is racist,” says Eugene Johnson, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, who’s paid close attention to the development of the shoe line. “This is a branding scheme of advertising that Nike is known for… I have no doubt that the sales folks are hoping that Indian sympathizers and the general public will be thinking of how Nike is so charitable in thinking of the Indians, thus, increasing sales through the usual brand of Nike branding advertising.”

Brent Hunsberger, a business reporter with The Oregonian who covers Nike from its home base of Beaverton, Oregon, notes that several Indian bloggers have echoed similar sentiments on the Internet, with some arguing that Nike is essentially “selling race.”

Porter, for one, thinks the imagery of the current Nike shoes is problematic. “Nike has raised issues of cultural appropriation that may not be appropriate,” says the legal scholar. “I think that could continue to raise issues for them.”

Despite such complaints, Nike officials along with Indians who were consulted to develop the Air Native N7 insist that the shoe – and what it took to create it – is anything but superficial or racist.

The idea was born about eight years ago when Sam McCracken, the manager of Nike’s Native American Business program, began hearing from health and wellness experts that some Indians were having problems fitting into traditional Nike shoes.

McCracken, a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine Reservation, says that those concerns, combined with his mom being diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2001, were the main motivators for him to push for the company to promote healthy activities among Native Americans.

“Diabetes is very personal to me,” says McCracken, who worked his way up to his current leadership position after initially being hired by Nike to work in its warehouse distribution centers. “So many of our people are affected by it in some way.” In fact, he lost his mom to the disease shortly after she was diagnosed.

According to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans have a disproportionately high prevalence rate of diabetes, obesity and overweight, in comparison to other racial groups. The National Institutes of Health has found that Indians, on average, are twice as likely to die from complications of diabetes than non-Indians.

These health statistics were foremost on the mind of Rodney Stapp, a podiatrist and a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, when he reached out to Nike and McCracken regarding variances he had observed through years of researching of foot sizes among diabetic Indian patients.

“Nike initially asked me if there was really that big of a difference in the average Indian foot from the average non-Indian foot,” recalls Stapp, who is director of the Dallas Urban Indian Health Center. “I told them that there was.” He eventually went on to become a consultant to Nike along with several other Native American wellness experts as the Air Native N7 was developed.

Beaverton, Oregon - Nike product line manager Ann Marie Fallow shows the new Nike Air Native N7 shoe at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
AP Photo by Don Ryan
Ultimately, Nike conducted its own outreach to Native communities, which confirmed Stapp’s findings. Mark Rhodes, a spokesman for the company, says McCracken and others measured the feet of 224 Native Americans from across the country over the course of two years, and the company found that the feet of Native Americans tend to be, on average, wider in the heel and taller than Nike’s average customer.

McCracken is careful to note that these findings are based on the average Native American foot, and that many Indians will have different footwear needs because their feet may be average in shape, or even narrow. “Nike is not saying this is a one-size-fits-all shoe for everybody,” he says.

To criticisms that the shoe somehow racially profiles Native Americans, Stapp is incredulous. “It’s about time someone is helping Indian Country this way,” he says. “Nike is bending over backwards to support Indian Country and to be culturally-sensitive to our needs.”

But are the feathers, arrows and other design elements that adorn the shoes really culturally sensitive?

“This was a way for us to really help the Indian population to identify with the shoe,” McCracken says. “The whole design process was all approved through my eyes. I wanted the product to belong to the Native community… I think the accent points are really subtle and compelling.”

Stapp says, if anything, he’d like to see the design expanded to include more Native American cultural symbols and to include materials that would be easily beadable for Indians who would like to customize their shoes that way.

Still, Johnson and others are quick to note that the shoe alone will do little to promote healthy lifestyles. “I do not believe Nike cares about Indian health and obesity because there are better methods to actually deal with it,” he says. “I can’t wait to see some 300-pound Indian standing in the powwow frybread line wearing a pair of Nike shoes. He won’t be doing any jumping jacks.”

McCracken and other Nike officials agree that more public health programs are needed in Indian Country, which is why, they say, all profits from the sale of the shoe will be reinvested into health programs focused on tribes. Starting in November, the shoes will be available exclusively through Nike’s Native American Business Program to Indian health centers throughout the U.S. at a wholesale cost of $42.80. The shoes will not be available for individuals to purchase in stores.

Porter, despite his concerns about cultural sensitivity, ultimately believes the end result of this project could have positive results.

While he says he could never wear the shoe because he has a narrow foot, he does acknowledge that this is a huge step forward for a Fortune 500 company to be making with Native Americans. “To the extent that this can blend the therapeutic with the economic, then it could be a good effort,” he says.

Stapp believes that as more people learn how Nike reached out to Native Americans throughout the shoe’s development process, concerns will ease. “As far as complaints go, there have probably been several hundred complaints from Indians on the Internet, but, if you think about it, we have over 4.1 million Indians in the United States,” he says. “And if only a couple hundred are unhappy about it, that’s a pretty good percentage.”

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