February 5, 2013

Is Manitobah Mukluks Indian Enough?

I got an "anonymous tip" last week that Manitobah Mukluks are now made in China. Another 'tipper' wrote on the Facebook fan page for Manitobah Mukluks, claiming "made in china, assembled in canada. nothing authentic about these."

Nothing authentic about them! Well, this claim seems like an important avenue to pursue, so let's look into this. If you go to the Manitobah Mukluks website, they actually address this issue on their FAQs page:

Where are your products made?
"Many of our signature products are made at our HQ in Winnipeg, Canada. This includes our Iconic Classic Mukluks with our Vibram Sole, our deerskin products and our Storyboots, which are handcrafted by elders and artisans in Aboriginal communities. In order to make our brand more accessible to more people, and to compete with other global fashion brands, we also produce some of our products internationally. In our catalog and on our website, we indicate which products are Made in Canada."

Made in Canada
You say "proudly Canadian", yet some of your products are made overseas – How is that authentic?
"Manitobah Mukluks IS proudly Canadian. As an Aboriginal Canadian, Authentic to me means being engaged in and contributing to my community. It also means respecting our history while creating positive change for the future. The best way for me to make the biggest impact is to get as many people wearing Manitobah Mukluks as possible. It's simple, for every pair of Manitobah Mukluks we sell, we are able to make a bigger impact. As a company, we work with local artists, we showcase successful role models and we invest in education and employment through our partnership with CAHRD (Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development). I'm particularly proud of our StoryBoot program which aims to help revive traditional arts by creating business building partnerships with elders and artisans who fashion mukluks and moccasins the traditional way. Through our "Walk With Us" program, we let consumers learn about our programs in the community and to choose one for which we will contribute an additional $1 as a thank you for their purchase and registration. Making some products overseas allows us to reach more people than we would otherwise thereby contributing to the growth of the brand and to our impact in the community. I believe that our success as an Aboriginal business has been due to our willingness to collaborate and to look to the past while walking forward. - Sean McCormick, CEO, smccormick@manitobah.ca."

The Storyboot Project
So, it would appear that the major point of contention comes from this sentence: "Making some products overseas allows us to reach more people than we would otherwise thereby contributing to the growth of the brand and to our impact in the community." Should Aboriginal/Native American businesses be allowed to make products overseas or to purchase raw materials that are produced overseas? (and, just so we're clear this last point includes our precious seed beads!). Where do we draw the line?

Mccasins by Manitobah Mukluks
I want to circle back to the opening claim that Manitobah Mukluks are "made in china, assembled in canada. nothing authentic about these," and discuss this topic through the lens of my own experiences working with the Beyond Buckskin Boutique. I believe in focusing on economic and business development here in our Native lands, and through Beyond Buckskin we try to keep our items "as Native as possible" - but this proves to be tricky since the raw materials used by Native artists are not produced by Native people on reservations (think: beads, cloth, zippers, inks, threads, etc - these are not produced magically in Gramma's hogan). In fact, Native people love taking 'foreign' items and Indigenizing them (hell, it's a thousand year old tradition to do so!). But what exactly makes a company 'Indian enough' to claim that they are an Aboriginal business (and get all the bragging rights that go with it)? Does it just have to be owned by a person of Aboriginal descent? Do they have to produce recognizably 'Aboriginal' items? Do you have to employ only First Nations employees? What if parts of your products are made by non-Native people - then what?

One way that we (at Beyond Buckskin) try to keep with the idea of nurturing economic development in the Americas is to use as many 'local' raw materials as possible (and sometimes 'local' means using American Apparel for our clothing blanks since it is the largest US clothing manufacturing company and is entirely in-house). Or, are shoe soles and t-shirts altogether not 'Indian enough' to use in Native American company products? Staying 'local' is an ongoing challenge (and sometimes buying US/Canada-made raw materials isn't even an option!), but it is one that keeps us pushing to find and promote better options.

Companies like Manitobah Mukluks also strategize to think of ways to help our communities. In fact, there are no clothing, jewelry, or shoe manufacturing companies located on or near our reservations that employ predominantly Native American/First Nations people, except for Manitobah Mukluks. Right now, building a clothing/shoe manufacturing company on a reservation would require a multi-million dollar investment - and that's just to build it; hundreds of thousands of dollars more would be required to support the basic operational costs. We don't even have that kind of support in the US (think of the declining local garment industry) let alone on reservations.

Even companies like Native Threads are forced to seek out alternatives for manufacturers in order to ensure that Native American representations of Native people and cultures are widely available and accessible. Finding a good manufacturer is how they are able to pursue their mission of providing clothing that serves as constant reminders about our past and to help bring the pride we carry inside of us to the surface. Native pride, man. I mean, don't we deserve the option to go to a major retailer like Wal-mart and snatch up a brand new Native Threads tee? Don't we deserve that kind of access? Or is that kind of business simply off limits for Native American-owned companies?

Native Threads x Steven Paul Judd Collaboration
Working with Beyond Buckskin, I realized that - as the world is right now - we can't compete with large companies that are 'allowed to' utilize all available resources (and therefore produce more items to meet the demand while keeping retail prices accessible). Native American-run companies also need to be 'allowed to' access all available resources, all while maintaining a sincere connection to our obligations to community. After all, it is this last point that separates Native-owned companies from other companies that seek to exploit Indigenous artists/communities for personal gain.

We live in a global world, and we need to be able to represent ourselves internationally and develop companies that can reach people worldwide. And we, as customers, need to be buying our stuff from Native businesses so that they can compete with other companies without engaging in the same unethical practices that are rampant in the fashion industry (sweatshops, anyone?). But every time that we criticize an Aboriginal-owned company for expanding, while at the same time continuing to buy and promote non-Aboriginal companies that do the same thing (every Apple product you buy comes from China), we actively work to stifle our own First Nations and Native American economies. Pick one side of the fence, and stop holding our Native companies to a destructive double-standard.

It takes a creative use of resources to operate a successful business and to compete with non-Native companies - and we need to be able to compete, because if we can't then our companies will not survive, and our representation in the fashion industry goes back to zero. Yet, sometimes 'competing' just means offering something different. And that 'different' thing might be the act of bringing economic growth to Native American and First Nations communities while supporting culture and art programs. After all, the majority of 'Native-inspired' fashion items are sold by companies that extract resources (knowledge, inspiration, and income) from our communities. Our companies might emphasize ideas of investing versus consuming.

We also need to represent our community value systems in a good way. It is this dedicated mission that makes our companies 'Native enough.' I think Native-owned businesses need to be at the forefront of building ethical business models, and I know we can do it if given opportunity and access in the broader world, and support from our own communities.

Below is a letter from Manitobah Mukluks in response to this question (from a Native-owned business called Calico Cottage Gift Shop): "Would you purchase moccasins/mukluks that are made in China?" Calico Cottage's owner has contacted me about Manitobah Mukluks' manufacturing decision, and the owner states on their Facebook Fan Page, "As stated earlier we will continue to carry only the line that is Native made. We have also asked customers who have come into our shop the same question.... Our customers have made it loud and clear that they will not purchase moccasins or mukluks made in China or outsourced anywhere overseas. When a customer buys their moccasins or mukluks from Calico Cottage they will be guaranteed that it did not come from China!"

Interestingly, Calico Cottage carries Jim Shore merchandise (see below), which is a non-Aboriginal company that outsources the making of their products to China. Calico Cottage is an Aboriginal-owned business. Do we apply our "outsourcing principles" differently towards Native and non-Native people or groups? I completely understand if a store wants to encourage local business growth in general, but it seems hypocritical when a shop actively and publicly chastises an Aboriginal-owned company for outsourcing some of their items, yet sells and promotes a non-Aboriginal company that outsources all of their products.

Manitobah Mukluks letter in response to Calico Cottage:

Hi Calico, thanks for bringing up this issue with your customers and thanks for your continued support. We really do want this discussion to happen and perhaps we can share another perspective as well.

It's true, we do make some products overseas and at the same time, we continue to make our best-selling items in Winnipeg. Despite appearances, our business model has not changed drastically since we outsourced some production. We are still Aboriginal owned, based in Winnipeg and we proudly employ some of the most resourceful and diverse people in Canada. We do a lot with very little. Demand for our products has increased. We want our product to remain accessible so we decided to diversify our production. We didn't make this decision lightly and it required a very clear focus on what our core mission is.

The truth is that we're proud of all of the items we produce for very simple reasons and we want our customers to feel equally proud of their purchase. The main reason we ARE proud to have expanding production is that we're able to make a bigger impact in our community. We use a portion of the sale from all our products to contribute to Aboriginal initiatives and to keeping traditional mukluk making alive. We are a Canadian Aboriginal owned business which means that we're owned by Aboriginal people and we try to employ as many other Aboriginal people as we can while we grow (whether that be in design, accounting, brand building, shipping, receiving or order entry).

At the moment we offer several types of products that satisfy different demands that our customers have:

- afforability
- production origin
- one-of-a-kind artisanal pieces
- quality materials
- community involvement
- Aboriginal design

If you want a product that satisfies all of these areas then you have to sacrifice cost, or if you want a product that costs less, then you sacrifice artist support or Canadian production origin. Either way, any product that you buy from Manitobah contributes to our "Walk With Us" fund that helps train aboriginal people to become high-level contributors to the work force and to keep traditional mukluk-making alive. At the moment we offer 3 different categories of products that express our goals and values in different ways:

1. Storyboots - If you want a product that is Made in Canada, one-of-kind, made by an Aboriginal artisan, high-quality and made with traditional materials then I suggest purchasing a mukluk from our Storyboot program: www.manitobah.ca/storyboots.php. These pieces are more expensive, but they contribute the most possible to our community by supporting actual Aboriginal artisans. All of the money from the sale of these pieces goes directly to that artist and it supports traditional business building in our community. If we could pay our bills selling just Storyboots, we'd be happy to do it.

2. Made in Canada factory line - For customers that want to support our Canadian-made factory line of really functional, and wearable products, then we have our Made-in-Canada line of products that are all listed on our website as "Made in Canada" i.e. http://store.manitobah.ca/collections/mukluks/products/tall-classic-mukluk these are our best-sellers and amongst our most functional products. Calico is supporting our Kanada line of mukluks and moccasins which are made in Canada and the beadworker who designed the vamp will be receiving $1 from every pair in order to teach others in her community how to bead.

3. International production - we also have a line of affordable products for consumers who are more price conscious and looking for a lower-cost way to support our company. These are made overseas, but made with the same high-quality materials and thousand year old designs that our other products do. Sales from these products still contribute to our community programs, but we're able to make them in higher volumes to meet demand. The reason we added this line of products was to compete with other brands while contributing the most possible to the Aboriginal community. We worked with Vibram and an Aboriginal artist named Heather Steppler to design the sole and they are great quality products.

As an Aboriginal business, we are also proud of our success on the world stage and welcome the opportunity to compete against all shoe companies. There aren't many companies like ours, so we really appreciate your support and feedback. Even if you decided to buy our off-shore products, they still do more than you know for promoting our culture to the world and supporting our community. In the end, the best way we can make a difference in our community is to have everyone purchase a Manitobah product whether they can afford a Storyboot or a tipi moccasin. At the moment all of our tags say "Proudly Canadian" because we are a Canadian company. Most of our employees work here in Canada, we make a lot of products here and our owners believe that being an authentic Aboriginal company means supporting our community while still thriving as a business like everyone else.

I hope that explains our mission a bit more. It's often hard to communicate the whole story of our brand without a nuanced conversation. People see "Made in China" and automatically have certain assumptions about our business model that are often unfounded. That said, we appreciate the feedback and value the support of our made in Canada line. If you continue to demand it and are willing to pay the price, we will continue to produce it! All the best,

Manitobah Mukluks