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Keene: Nike Gets It Right; Brand Collaborates With O’odham Designer

Nike collaborates with Native American designer Dwayne Manuel.

A couple of weeks ago, photos surfaced on sneaker blogs showing Nike’s new Superbowl shoe collection, a set of shoes featuring “desert colors” and, most strikingly, an O’odham “man in the maze” design positioned prominently on the tongue of the shoe. None of the blogs had any additional information, and I couldn’t find a press release from the company, so I held my breath and readied an angry open letter in my mind. I tweeted out looking for info, but no one had any leads. I started to wonder if it was a photoshop mock up, and not an actual shoe that would be in stores.

Photo courtesy news.nike.com.

But, to my surprise and delight, it looks like Nike actually did it right. The shoes are not an unfortunate appropriation, instead they are the awesome result of a collaboration between Nike and Salt River tribal member Dwayne Manuel. The press release states of the designs and collaboration:

“To honor the location of this year’s big game, Nike enlisted the talents of O’odham tribe member Dwayne Manuel, MFA, who specializes in drawing and graffiti art and resides in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community in southern Arizona. Manuel’s design for Nike Sportswear’s new Desert Journey collection interprets two traditional symbols, the war shield and the whirlwind, which together reflect Manuel’s heritage and illustrate the modern competitor’s long, battle-filled journey to reach the final destination.”

They go on to describe the inspiration behind the designs, and the traditional meanings behind each design choice, including the The Man of the Maze:

“The Man of the Maze, a traditional design not created by Manuel, but one he agrees is a meaningful symbol to stand alongside his work, is also incorporated on a few of the styles in the collection. The Maze signifies the path of life, and how each turn represents the impact of everything that happens, with the Sun in the center and a figure representing the O’odham people.”

Photo courtesy news.nike.com.

I think the description of the collection is fantastic, and shows why there is so much power in letting Native peoples represent themselves in the design world. In addition, Nike donated $20,000 to Salt River for youth programming, which is an additional bonus.

This is a huge step forward for Nike, and makes me very happy to see a Native designer actually involved in the creation of the product. I say this, because in November, Nike’s N7 division released their Northwest Coast-inspired Holiday Collection. The designs were stylish and cool, and the initial press release stated that they were a collaboration with Coast Salish artist Peter Boome. One problem: The designs weren’t Coast Salish, and Peter didn’t actually design them. The exact quotation reads:

"Nike collaborated with Peter Boome, a Northwest Coastal Salish artist, to develop and authenticate the graphics presented in the collection."

Photo courtesy news.nike.com.

Note two important words there: develop and authenticate. To me, that immediately put up red flags that Peter was not given full agency to design the collection, and that he was in more of a consultant role. Additionally, the designs are from the more well-known northern Northwest Coast formline art design, not Coast Salish. So, essentially, it sounded like a Coast Salish artist was brought in to "authenticate" designs not from his community. Would you ask a Chinese artist to "authenticate" Japanese art styles?

Boome received a lot of questions and concern in the first days after the line was announced, so he took to his personal Facebook page to clarify his role in the collection, and to let followers know that he was working with Nike to change the marketing language. He said:

“Nike wanted to do a general Northwest Coastal design. They didn’t want the design to represent ANY specific tribe or tribal group. As you can imagine this is an impossible task, instead Nike wanted a much broader design. My role on this project was to assist the N7 team with coming up with this broad based design. Nike needed an artist who understood the broad based concept and who could put their ego aside and work with their existing team. Obviously I would have loved to lock myself in the studio and design the entire line myself in my own style, which happens to be Puget Sound Salish, however that wasn’t what this project was about. This project was designed to cover the entire Northwest from Alaska to Oregon, and as many of you well know, Northern Formline is what the broader world knows about the Northwest. One of the more ironic aspects of this situation is that I have spent my entire career educating people about the difference between Salish work and the better-known Northern Formline. I’m actually excited about expanding that conversation with the exposure that N7 gets.”

He added at the end, “This is the first time Nike has collaborated with an Indian artist to create a line, we are all learning from this process and will continue to improve.”

The language was then clarified and Boome’s tribal affiliation added in the later version of the release saying, “Nike collaborated with Peter Boome, a Northwest Coast artist and member of the Upper Skagit tribe, to assist in developing the graphics presented in the Holiday 2014 N7 collection.”

Photo courtesy news.nike.com.

It was striking to me in Boome’s update that he noted this was the first time Nike had collaborated with a Native artist — N7 has been around since 2009. So all those cool N7 designs we’ve all been rocking in Indian Country (with the exception of Bunky Echohawk’s shirt line, obviously)? They weren’t designed by Native designers.

Manuel’s Desert Journey collection isn’t released specifically for the N7 line, so I don’t know how much overlap there is between the two, but it is heartening to see that maybe folks at Nike are listening after the N7 Holiday push back. I know there is a lot of appreciation for what Nike does through N7 for Indian Country, but it’s also important to question the friendship too. I feel that if the company wants to support Native peoples, they should continue to support Native designers, and allow us to show the tribally-specific nature of our designs. Part of deconstructing Native stereotypes is breaking apart the idea that all Native peoples are the same, and this includes the incredible diversity of our art as well.

In this spirit, I hope The Desert Journey collection is the first of many full collaborations between Nike and Native designers. We have so much talent in Indian Country, and it’s wonderful to see large corporations like Nike taking steps to showcase that talent, and learning how to do it right.

Dr. Adrienne Keene. Photo courtesy Matika Wilbur, Project562.com

Adrienne Keene is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a postdoctoral researcher, and has a life mission to provide a critical lens on representations of Native peoples. She also blogs at NativeAppropriations.com, and tweets about her breakfast and other exciting topics at @NativeApprops.