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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

Native American Heritage Month: How One Brand Is Keeping Indigenous Traditions Alive

Shot of feet with moccasins on a glacier.
Sean McCormick of Manitobah saw there was a market for Indigenous footwear, which had been keeping Indigenous people warm—even in the harshest conditions—for thousands of years. MANITOBAH

Sean McCormick didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, he also spent a lot of time in northern Manitoba, where his mother, who is Métis, was raised. His grandfather was a trapper and had a dogsled team, which is how he helped feed his family. Indigenous footwear, such as moccasins and mukluks, were part of their everyday attire. In high school, McCormick started working at a tannery making hides into leather. It was there that he built a trading post where he traded leather and fur to Indigenous women to make moccasins and mukluks, and then sold them to footwear stores. “A Métis kid trading with First Nations people and Caucasian people is a very Canadian business,” says McCormick with a laugh.

He saw there was a market for Indigenous footwear, which had been keeping Indigenous people warm—even in the harshest conditions—for thousands of years. “I didn't have any business or educational background, so I took a nine-month course offered by a government institution for Indigenous youth who were thinking about business,” says McCormick. “I was about 21 years old at the time, and it was there I created the business plan that would become Manitobah Mukluks.”

He founded Manitobah Mukluks in 1997 with a single store in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and it has since grown into a global brand with a mission of making a positive impact on Indigenous communities. Roughly 40% of their employees are Indigenous with a focus on social impact, while leveraging Indigenous designers and prioritizing Indigneous suppliers.

“I didn't invent mukluks—there's no one person who did—they belong to the Indigenous people,” says McCormick. “So my company always had a debt to pay. It wasn't good enough to just acknowledge that mukluks belonged to Indigenous people, I had to somehow pay it back. We're not a business with a cause, we're a cause with a business, and Indigenous impact is at the heart of everything we do.”

The Indigenous concept of the Seventh Generation Principle is that any decisions made today should consider the impact it will have for seven generations in the future, as well as looking back seven generations to those who came before. It’s the heart of the concept of sustainability we talk so much about today.

“When you look through that Indigenous worldview of thinking seven generations ahead while honoring our past, our elders and our knowledge, excellence to us isn't just profit,” says McCormick. “There has to be a bigger reason to get out of bed. It’s not just thinking about the next-quarter results or our own wealth. We really need to start thinking about what kind of a world we are leaving for seven generations down the line. This is especially important in business today, with Millennials and younger generations thinking differently, because we've given them a whole host of problems. There must be an acceptance that in order to thrive in the future—our future for everybody—we all have to take responsibility for cleaning up this mess. The companies that adopt this first are going to be the ones that thrive in the future.”

McCormick has built purpose into his brand, illustrating how profit can fuel social impact. Here are the four pillars Manitobah created that are helping to keep Indigenous traditions alive, all while increasing economic opportunity and contributing to a sustainable future.

Indigenous Artists: Art in Action

As mukluks are owned by Indigenous people, every piece of footwear is connected to an Indigenous artist and benefits them through their design services, beadwork, or co-branding to help Indigenous artists build their brands. The artists have collectively made close to half a million dollars to date.

“We have thousands of years of not only top product performance, but also beautiful designs that we can pull from the Indigenous artists we work with,” says McCormick. “It provides a platform for Indigenous design and art to come to the forefront, all while modernizing the footwear. It's a beautiful, symbiotic relationship.”

Keeping Indigenous Traditions Alive: Education for Change

McCorkmick started the Mukluk Storyboot School in 2013 to connect Indigenous artists with students across Canada to help teach Indigenous arts and traditional craft traditions from dying.

“Going back to my tannery and trading post days, I saw mostly women practicing Indigenous arts and crafts. As they were getting older, these traditions weren’t necessarily getting passed on to the youth,” says McCormick. “I set up a formal school to keep these traditions alive, but it’s really also teaching Indigenous pride, achievement, and cultural history. We're helping to make sure that this knowledge stays healthy and vibrant.”

Indigenous Marketplace: Trade for Community

Like Etsy for Indigenous artists, Manitobah features the work of Indigenous artisans with a marketplace that connects buyers to authentic, handmade Indigenous jewelry, home decor and more, and 100% of the proceeds goes directly to the artists. Artists using the platform have been paid out more than $500,000 to date.

“It connects Indigenous artists to our global marketplace so they can reap the benefits of our infrastructure to build their platform or artistic brand and generate revenue from their art for themselves,” says McCormick. “It also helps to build pride for our culture.”

Economic Independence: Sovereignty Through Leadership

In Canada, the Indigenous unemployment rate is nearly 8% higher than the non-Indigenous population, and more than 60% of unemployed Indigenous peoples named a lack of available jobs as the reason for not being in the workforce. Manitobah prioritizes Indigenous talent in terms of their recruitment and retention for their staff, and nearly 30% of their C-suite and board are Indigenous people. They also focus on mentoring Indigenous youth within the company and their community.

“Our people need help. There are issues with colonialism, residential schools, unemployment and trauma,” says McCormick. “Ultimately Manitobah’s purpose is to shine a light on Indigenous excellence and knowledge, and to make sure we're a conduit for positive change. We have some long-time Indigenous employees who have really grown with us, but these are people who are becoming professionals that either will continue to work with Manitobah and help us grow, or maybe they'll start their own company, or go to another company and help that company grow. It's really the ethos behind it as we're an Indigenous company that knows where we come from and that we have this debt to repay. As the company grows, so does our impact, but as our impact grows, so does our brand. Because consumers want real brands. They want authenticity, and they want companies that are making change in the world now. I think Manitobah is a beautiful example of that.”

*Article originally published in Forbes


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