Heart and Sole

Nike’s new Native American shoe meets mixed reviews.

By Rachel Ritchie May 19, 2009 Published in the December 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

WHEN SPORTS GIANT Nike sets its mind to marketing a shoe—like, say, the Air Jordan—success in the form of windfall profits and brand recognition generally follow (excepting, of course, that whole Michael Vick sneaker debacle). But every now and then, the company’s marketing juggernaut sets up for another slam dunk—and, well, misses.

Such was the case of the Air Native N7, an athletic shoe that the company revealed to the media in September. The leather cross-trainer with an extra-wide toe box was designed to accommodate the Native American foot, which, on average, is almost an inch wider in women and half an inch wider in men than the feet of European descendants. Nike’s idea was to encourage Native Americans, who are three times more likely to die of a diabetes-related illness than the general population, to lead healthier, more active lifestyles. As a goodwill gesture, the company is pouring 100 percent of the profits from the Air Native into youth wellness programs on tribal lands. “This idea evolved out of Nike’s commitment to supporting healthy activity in the Native American community,” explains Bob Applegate, Nike’s communications director for Oregon.

But the shoe has drawn criticism from those who take issue with its rather stereotypical symbols: The Air Native’s sockliner features a feather pattern, while the tongue is brandished with a “sunrise-to-sunset-to-sunrise” design (basically a strip of color grading from yellow to red to purple and back again) to pay homage, according to Applegate, to Native American art and tradition. That design has provided comedic fodder for everyone from Saturday Night Live to Native American novelist Sherman Alexie.

“The day it was announced,” Alexie told the New York Times, “I thought: ‘Are they going to have dream catchers on them?Are they going to be beaded? Will they have native bumper stickers on them that say, ‘Custer had it coming?’”

Well, sort of.

Nike’s heart might have been in the right place with the Air Native, but there’s a catch to its philanthropy: Only Native Americans can purchase the shoes through a special Nike website, which means, ahem, that the profits meant to help them actually come from Native Americans themselves.

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