If you’ve visited the Outdoor Retailer trade show, or just seen the content that the Outdoor Industry Association pushes out around the show, you’ll be familiar with the annual discussions around diversity and the panels focused on including a wider range of consumers and industry players. If you’ve walked the halls, you’ll be equally familiar with the tipis, mukluks, blankets and Kokopelli symbols that brands seem to default to as a way of associating whatever they have to sell with a historical past and a sense of the expansive outdoors. The juxtaposition of welcoming rhetoric and continued appropriation of Indigenous cultures is particularly striking, but the change in rhetoric is all that’s new; the outdoor industry has been appropriating native culture for decades.
According to Kimberly Robertson, an assistant professor at Cal State LA and member of the Mvskoke nation, cultural appropriation occurs when a powerful group takes cultural expressions (art, patterns, symbols and phrases) from a group that is less powerful and has been historically exploited and uses it for economic or social gain. In the outdoor industry, it’s sadly about as common as bright red Gore-Tex.
But not everyone is doing it wrong. Some brands are making a genuine effort to respectfully engage with Indigenous peoples. This means not only understanding, respecting and knowing their culture but also making sure that the proceeds from Native art flow back to Native communities. Here are five brands that are not only going about things the right way but also putting out excellent products in the process.
Olukai’s shoes, sandals and flip flops have Hawaiian names and use Hawaiian imagery prominently. This isn’t unusual in the surf industry, but what is unusual is Olukai’s commitment to the culture from which those images emerge. They employ Hawaiian designers and use their platform to educate consumers about Hawaiian culture. They have also established a foundation, the Ama OluKai Foundation, which honors those who preserve and celebrate the cultural heritage and Aloha spirit of Hawaii. Recently they’ve donated to groups preserving the history, culture, and environment of the Islands.
Gear Patrol Recommends:Kulia Leather Beach Sandal
Muralist Brandy Serikaku, who grew up in Hilo and came to Olukai’s attention when she painted a mural for an event they sponsored, mostly works on women’s footwear, but she has also worked on amazing men’s beach sandals, including this pair.
As far as major sportswear brands go, this one has made a huge effort to reach out to the Indigenous population. Nike’s N7 shoes feature a larger fit for Indigenous feet with a wider toe box and fewer seams. Since its 2007 introduction by Sam McCracken (Fort Peck Sioux), manager of Nike’s Native American Business Program, the shoe has been distributed to Natives via tribal schools and wellness programs nationwide, with shoe sale profits reinvested in tribal health programs. Early iterations feature arrowheads and feathers, but thankfully collections designed by Taboo (Shoshone) and Bunky Echo Hawk (Pawnee), as well as sneaker legend Tinker Hatfield, have moved from tropes to trends. While it would be great to see an all-Indigeous design team, and patterns attributed to artists and cultures not just Native American heritage, we should salute Nike for reaching out where other big brands have not.
Gear Patrol Recommends:Nike Zoom Heritage N7
Not only is this rezball shoe robust, light and ready for pick-up play anywhere, it’s also designed with hip-hop legend Taboo and sneaker hall of famer Tinker Hatfield.
Natives Outdoors make outdoor apparel that is Native designed, donate 2 percent of profits to Native communities and work to empower rather than appropriate from Native cultures. Not only that, but the brand puts out some of the softest T-shirts I have ever worn! Natives Outdoors is a public benefit corporation (B Corp) that works with Native ambassadors and designers to help Native people access the outdoors. With towels, beanies, T-shirts, stickers and trucker caps, Natives Outdoors offers something for even the most dedicated urbanite who wants to support a worthy cause.
Gear Patrol Recommends:Natives Outdoors Bears Ear Is Healing Shirt
This organic cotton T-shirt is ethically sourced and produced, and Navajo Designer @VernanKee retains copyright of the image. The image, and a portion of the proceeds, will support the fight to keep the ancestral homelands of the Diné, Hopi, Zuni and Ute peoples under tribal control and out of the hands of resource extraction companies. Utah Diné Bikeyah (People’s Sacred Lands), who work to keep the lands safe, benefit from every shirt sold.
“Native-inspired” blankets are a dime a dozen at tchotchke stands around the Southwest, but those made by Native-owned companies are few and far between. Although the most responsible way to get a blanket is from a weaver so that you can support them directly, buying from a Native-owned company is a good bet. Founder Louie Gong supports other Native designers through the Inspired Natives Project, a collaboration with Native artists to make products under the Eighth Generation brand that aims to broaden the diversity of influences and give Native artists a way to scale production and income. Their blankets, phone cases, apparel and art pieces can be found online or in their Pike Place store.
Gear Patrol Recommends:“The Companion” Wool Blanket
Designed by Inspired Natives Project collaborator, Sarah Agaton Howes (Anishinaabe), this blanket features otters who are sacred companions in the Anishinaabe tradition. The label includes a little extra space to write a name or dedication if this blanket is a gift.
Beyond Buckskin Boutique
Moccasins might be the original culturally appropriated fashion trend. At first, this was because they were practical, but there’s no denying they are also beautiful. Walk the halls of OR and you’ll see half a dozen brands trying to sell you on moccasins made in China. Buying from Beyond Buckskin Boutique not only guarantees a quality product, it also means that some of your money will go to underprivileged youth living on reservations.
Gear Patrol Recommends:Handmade Moccasins
Made by Jamie Gentry (Kwakwaka’wakw), these mocs are comfortable and hip, and they feature a crepe sole to hold up better on the streets. In addition to tan, they also come in black and mocha.