Begun in 2000, inspired by the Native wisdom of the Seven Generations, Nike’s N7 program is one of the premier national initiatives for keeping Native youth physically active. Supported through a portion of profits from sales of the N7 Collection, as well as by private donations, the program’s namesake fund has generated more than $1 million to help Native and aboriginal nonprofit groups provide access to sport for young people.
The ultimate goal? To spur these newly energized youth to act as catalysts for positive change in their communities.
As if that were not ambitious enough, the program also helps tribal sports teams flourish nationwide and in Canada. “Today in the U.S., 300-plus communities use N7 products to promote sport and physical activity,” says Sam McCracken, N7’s general manager and chairman of its board of directors.
Building N7 has been a transformative experience for McCracken, who grew up on the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation in Poplar, Montana. He is quick to point out his “humble beginnings” at the athletic-footwear-and-apparel company: “I started in the distribution center.”
Almost immediately, though, McCracken seemed destined for greater heights. In June 1997, the same month he joined Nike, he was asked to take a volunteer role in leading one of the company’s several diversity programs—in this case, the Native American Employee Network. McCracken set about preparing a business plan to make athletic gear and sport more accessible to Native and aboriginal youth. His dedication paid off: Three years later, Nike promoted him to manager of Nike Native American Business, named N7 in 2007 with the launch of its first shoe, Nike Air Native N7.
“I took advantage of the opportunity Nike gave me, and it blossomed into Nike N7,” he says. “I always tell Native youth to look at the opportunities in front of them and take advantage of those.”
To create Nike Air Native N7, McCracken and his colleagues collaborated with the Indian Health Service to do foot scans to meet the specific fit and width requirements of the Native American foot. “That was the dawn of the logo, which has resonated into today.”
N7 collections have since evolved, featuring footwear and apparel in turquoise, black, red, yellow and other colors associated with Native culture. The holiday collection will be unveiled this fall at the National Congress of American Indians’ 68th Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon. And the Fall 2011 collection includes designs by artist Bunky Echo-Hawk, of the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma and Yakama Nation in Washington. Among the items are graphic T-shirts featuring a traditional Native warrior holding a basketball in a strike pose.
Beyond encouraging Native youth to get up and move, the N7 program aims to decrease the disproportionate rates of obesity and diabetes among American Indian and aboriginal populations. It is a goal that has a special meaning for McCracken.
“My mother had type 2 diabetes,” he says. “While staying at her bedside, holding her hand as the Creator took her away, I knew I didn’t want other people to go through that experience. Here, I’m providing access to disease-prevention coordinators throughout the U.S. to empower them to do their jobs better.”
From the start, N7 has attracted a wide spectrum of supporters, including Native athletes who advocate for American Indian and aboriginal youth participation in sport. Going by the title of N7 Ambassadors, they include Jacoby Ellsbury, center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, and Sam Bradford, quarterback for the St. Louis Rams. Other prominent names are Navajo long-distance runner and hopeful 2012 Olympic marathoner Alvina Begay, and Northern Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone, Pawnee and Sioux basketball star Tahnee Robinson.
For McCracken, the relationship has been most rewarding. “Most of these folks have come to us about being involved,” he says. “Alvina and Tahnee are great supporters of the vision, sharing what sport has done to elevate their lives.” Indeed, the general manager has found that the benefits work both ways: “I’m helping them fulfill some of their dreams and visions of giving back to the community where they grew up.”