March 1, 2008
Made to Fit
Nike has designed a shoe specifically to reflect the physical traits and cultural values of Native Americans.
Last fall Nike introduced the Air Native N7, the first shoe designed to fit the Native American foot. The sneaker had its genesis in 2002, when Rodney Stapp, a Dallas-area podiatrist and member of the Comanche Nation, dissected a pair of Nike’s Air Monarchs with a band saw. His patients, largely Native Americans with diabetes, didn’t fit well into most shoes, a problem that compounded the serious foot-related complications associated with the disease. (Type 2 diabetes afflicts Native Americans at twice the rate as it does Caucasians.) Stapp noticed that their (and his) feet were wider than average and bulkier at the toe, but the heels were a more typical size. The roomy Air Monarchs could be made suitable for his patients, but he wondered why there couldn’t be a shoe built specially for them.
When Stapp shared his altered shoes with Nike, “the sports-and-research lab’s lights turned on,” says Sam McCracken, who manages the company’s Native American Business Program. With Stapp as a consultant, a Nike team traveled the country for two years with a portable foot scanner, testing the measurements of 224 subjects from more than 70 tribes. Based on that limited (and somewhat unscientific—the total Native American population is 2.4 million) survey, they found a striking trend. “If you were to go get a Nike in-line running shoe, it’s going to be a B width,” McCracken says. “Ninety-three percent of the women we scanned from Native lands were a D width or wider.” From the scans, they designed an entirely new last—the solid molding that forms the basis for a shoe—with a wider forefoot, a higher toe box, and a standard-size heel. Most seams were removed from the interior to minimize chafing, and the sock liner was nearly doubled for extra support.
Meanwhile, Nike repositioned the Air Native from a diabetic shoe to one for all Native Americans. “We were building it for the active, healthy Native American person who wanted to continue to be happy, healthy, and active,” McCracken says. “It’s more a prevention piece on our side and an inspirational piece to encourage physical activity.” To reinforce the cultural specificity of the design, Nike lifted aesthetic “cues” from Native American traditions: feathers on the sock liner, an arrowhead motif, and a heel tab with a swirl of colors to signify the sun’s cycles. Even the logo, N7, is a nod to the Iroquois law of considering the effect of one’s actions on the next seven generations. Purposefully, it is one of the first shoes that Nike brought out under its environmentally friendly design guidelines, Considered. “We wanted to make sure the community knew it was theirs,” McCracken says.
The shoes are distributed—at their wholesale price of $42.80—exclusively to tribal health centers, which are encouraged, but not required, to give them away or sell them at a low cost. (Their suggested retail price would be $80, a little more than the Air Monarch.) All profits will fund Let Me Play, Nike’s soon-to-be-launched program to promote physical activity on reservations. The 10,000 pairs that have already shipped are expected to raise at least $200,000.
So far so good. But in the weeks following the Air Native’s unveiling, questions arose over whether the endeavor was simply a marketing ploy—or even racist. Some took umbrage at the suggestion that they needed special shoes. (“American Indians are fat and have funny-shaped feet,” one Comanche blogger, David Yeagley, wrote sardonically. Another, an African-American runner, suggested that “[w]hat Nike is doing here kind of reminds me of urban folklore of Black people and how [they] have an extra bone in their foot or ankle.”) Could Native American feet really be so distinct as to require a dedicated shoe? “Yes,” says Dennis Frisch, a podiatrist from Boca Raton, Florida. “Some things that have been culturally picked on are actually true. The Native American population does have wider feet.” And it’s not just a matter of comfort, Frisch notes: “When you take it into account that the Native American culture has a much greater incidence of diabetes, and the problems of a poor-fitting shoe greatly exacerbate the problems you can have with diabetes—getting sores and ulcers, things that can ultimately lead to amputation—I think it’s fantastic that they have a shoe that fits better.”
The sneakers’ Native American iconography was also met with some squeamishness, but it’s certainly not the first time that Nike has used ethnic symbols to sell shoes. In 2006 the company came out with a Chinese New Year sneaker, and it has designed other styles in recognition of Black History Month and the Puerto Rican Day Parade. For the Air Native, McCracken says, the designs came from consumer insight and the suggestions of Native American artists. “We weren’t going to put something on there that we thought was offensive to the community.” And, he adds, “We would be silly not to apply ideas that came from the community into the products.”
So if there’s a shoe for Native Americans, can we expect to see sneakers designed to fit other races? Perhaps not. Frisch suggests that few other groups would benefit from their own footwear. And in any event, Nike seems a little spooked by the possibility. (A company spokesman, Dean Stoyer, would only say, “Nike has been approached but we’re not at liberty to discuss further at this time.”) Meanwhile, a comment to the Web site of South Dakota’s Rapid City Journal suggests taking the long view of the tempest in a toe box: “It’s just a shoe. If it fits, wear it.”