We’ve all heard of Air Jordans and Air Force Ones, but is (Native) America ready for the Air Native N7?
This new shoe, revealed by Nike last Tuesday, is the first shoe ever designed by Nike to target a specific race in an attempt to address the obesity epidemic facing Native American communities. As a Native person myself (Tohono O’odham) I was confused, and indeed even slightly amused at the lengths Nike went to try and make a shoe it deemed suitable for its Native American consumers. One task involved measuring the feet of Native people from various tribes, concluding that “American Indians have a much wider and taller foot than the average shoe accommodates.”
Really? Well that comes as a shock to me, since I never really considered my size 10 regular feet to be abnormally large in any way.
Oh well. Nike’s “research,” which entailed measuring the feet of 200 Native Americans out of a population of approximately four million, proved otherwise. I didn’t realize that one could apply the measurements of 400 feet to four million people.
In any case, to accommodate our apparently large and wide feet, Nike even made their shoes “wider with a larger toe box” and “fewer seams for irritation.” If that weren’t enough, the shoe has “heritage callouts,” including feathers, stars and sunrise patterns. Aww Nike, you shouldn’t have.
Really. In all seriousness, you shouldn’t have. The more I read about the shoe, the more apparent it was that this was just as much of a strategic business move as it was a charitable endeavor. Nike plans to sell the products cheaply and raise $200,000 for various tribal programs — but to a multi-billion dollar corporation, this seems more like money meant to bolster an image as a socially conscious business than to actually make a real difference.
There’s more. Will these shoes truly help in reducing the serious obesity epidemic in Indian country, or will it result in a more prolific Nike name brand that allows the company to capitalize on a new market (Indian reservations) and draw more media attention? The intention is fine, but if you want to help us, Nike, you should treat us as fellow business partners rather than another marketing demographic.
Use all that creative energy and marketing power to help us build up our own tribal businesses and social initiatives — created for us and by us to address the needs in our communities. It would be a completely different story if a Native-owned shoe company was marketing shoes with “heritage callouts” that were specific and meaningful to that respective tribe, and they were using those profits to build up their business and give back to their communities.
I, for one, am fine with my simple, generic brand, non-race-specific sneakers, thanks. I don’t need shoes with stars, suns, or feathers — symbols, I should add, that are not exactly the benchmark of Tohono O’odham heritage and culture, but rather stereotypical “Indian” images made popular by Disney movies and Hollywood to encourage me to exercise more or affirm my Native identity.
As someone who is interested in public health and plans to work with Native communities after graduation, it seems to me that the strength, innovation and leadership of Native people creating their own social programs often goes unnoticed and unappreciated in the mass media. This is too bad because organizations like Tohono O’odham Community Action (from the Tohono O’odham Nation) and the Cheyenne River Youth Project (from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) are programs meant, among other things, to address health concerns in their communities and approach them in culturally appropriate, non-commercialized ways.
In noticing and attempting to address a major health issue in Native American communities, Nike took a step forward. But in using stereotypes and broad generalizations to market a product more for the benefit of the corporation than to the actual people it claims to be trying to serve, Nike took giant two steps back.
Maya Bernadett is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American tribe located in Arizona.