For Native American footwear designer Dewayne Dale Jr., creating a shoe that fully represented himself and his indigenous culture didn’t happen on the first try. Because after years of being a fixture on a mood board, Dale Jr. — who is from Shiprock, N.M., of the Red Running Into Water born for Water’s Edge Navajo clans — concluded that footwear mega players weren’t looking to actually showcase the authentic Native American experience. This was until he met Rocky Parrish, CEO and founder at Rockdeep.
“When I started to see that process [of how a shoe is developed], that’s where I became very unimpressed. This is how product is made? This is what we’re feeding people?” Dale Jr. said. “I’ll be sitting in a meeting and [a brand will say] they want to focus on a Southwest culture and I’m sitting right there. People are trying to tell you this story of where you grew up and where you’re from. It turns into a very commercial product and you just become this figure of inspiration.”
It was like living in parallel words, Parrish explained. As a Black business owner, he too, has seen whitewashing first hand. He reached out to Dale Jr. to create an unapologetic, real shoe that told his story.
“You become filtered. In the industry, you’ll have non-Native people designing for what they’re thinking is for Native people. Then you have a white person designing a Black History Month sneaker. How much sense does that make?” Parrish said. “Rockdeep is the culture unfiltered, meaning I don’t have to go through red tape. I make decisions on what goes and what doesn’t. And when it came to this particular collaboration, all I’m doing is providing a platform. There’s a back story to everything. And I really wanted Dwayne to pour that piece of him out.”
For their collab, called the Fifth x Rockdeep M.1 Trail shoe, Dale Jr. used the opportunity to take back a traditional indigenous style of footwear: the moccasin.
“Taking back the moc has been my muse of how I’m pushing forward,” said Dale Jr., who has design experience with Keen, Chrome Industries and other brands. “Native Americans have a look, we have a style. What I’ve noticed is that other companies will just take, take, take, take. They take moccasins and they’ll make them and there’s no meaning.”
He said that with the Rockdeep partnership, it’s not a “Native-inspired” style. It’s very much how he grew up and is a reflection of his culture. “I don’t believe you can call it ‘inspired by’ when I’m literally reflecting on my past and how I grew up. I want to take back that look. I want people to know where this came from because it always dies on an inspiration board.”
When designing the shoe, details were created with intent to represent his people. For instance, he used a rust-colored upper and white sole, not to fulfill a certain color trend, but to showcase the rust-hued material and off-white rawhide bottom that is seen in traditional moccasin looks, along with a pop of turquoise. Plus, Dale Jr. said he was drawn to the outdoor, trail-focused silhouette to symbolize what Southwestern land looks like.
But what was most important for Dale Jr. was for his tribe and fellow Native Americans to see and wear the shoe.
“I needed to hit the kid on the reservation who probably has no idea what’s going on in the sneaker world,” he said. “I’ll see a brand create this color story and specific category that is supposed to aim at Native American people. But when I go back home, there’s nobody wearing these. They never make it back to the people who influenced it, and that didn’t sit well with me.”
During a time when diversity and inclusion is top of mind among fashion companies, Native Americans are often forgotten when it comes to representation. Their craftsmanship is often used without meaning and continuously appropriated for “trends.” Supposedly Native American-inspired symbols, stitching, beadwork and geometric prints are ubiquitous across fashion items — often without any Native American voices behind the design processes.
For instance, in 2012, Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for selling a line of products all labeled Navajo. (They reached an undisclosed settlement in 2016.) High-end labels such as Givenchy, Valentino, Dsquared2, DKNY and Ralph Lauren have also been at the center of cultural appropriation controversies through the years.
“I don’t like companies to look at us and design product as if we are artifacts,” said Dale Jr. The designer added that he’s seen a Japanese-owned brand on the market with a moc aesthetically similar to the traditional style — except it’s being sold for more than $1,000 and likely wasn’t informed by Native American designers. “How are people not seeing that this is not cool? But talking about anything indigenous, right along with Black people, nobody even wants to touch it. It’s a very big pill to swallow.”
This is exactly why this Rockdeep collaboration is not a one off, according to Parrish, who said additional lifestyle looks are in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, for Dale Jr., telling this story to the masses will remain a part of his ongoing commitment and responsibility as a designer.
“I’m hoping that we do put this on the map in that it’s not just for the Navajo Nation but Native tribes all around. There are products that need to be shared. This kind of collaboration needs to happen and needs to continue to happen with other Native footwear designers,” he said. “It allows the younger Natives to almost feel like we’re connected and it may even help them find a deeper sense of identity.”