PHOTO: Native-Made Moccasins! Q&A With the Blackfeet Founder of TPMOCS

PHOTO: Native-Made Moccasins! Q&A With the Blackfeet Founder of TPMOCS

Kristin Butler

Maria Running Fisher Jones grew up wearing moccasins on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana, and later in Great Falls, Montana. "I've always worn moccasins. I love them. I have multiple pairs," she told ICTMN.

TPMOCS was born through her desire to give back to her tribal community.

The idea for the business sparked a few years ago when Running Fisher Jones, now a San Francisco Bay resident and intellectual property attorney for Oracle, was visiting her family in Browning, for the North American Indian Days. "I took a drive around town, and not much has changed since I was a kid. It's still very stricken with poverty. I was thinking of what can I do to help this community, my community," she said.

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation struggles with a 69 percent unemployment rate. "It just kind of came to me — to use a traditional art form to create employment opportunities. I thought moccasins would be a good way to share the appreciation of our culture with other people."

Proceeds from every purchase of moccasins for little ones, now available for ages zero to 2, help TPMOCS address poverty on the Blackfeet reservation. TPMOCS mission is three-fold: 1) to employ Native Americans to handcraft each pair of moccasins, 2) to use a portion of the profits to purchase necessities for underprivileged children living on reservations, and 3) to keep Native traditions alive.

Running Fisher Jones eventually intends to expand TPMOCS tribe by tribe, hiring and training Native artisans and other employees, and providing resources to more Native communities in need.

For its first major giveback, TPMOCS partnered with the Blackfeet Early Childhood Center during the 2016 North American Indian Days, held each July in Browning. "We gave diapers, clothing and formula for children ages 0 to 2. We'll do that again, likely this year around Christmas," Running Fisher Jones said.

In general, moccasin designs vary by tribe and region. TPMOCS moccasins are based on traditional Blackfeet design. The colorful liners take a modern spin on traditional art. The moccasins are branded with names like Fire Walker, resembling a red pendelton pattern, and the Salmon Runner, in tan cowhide, accented with soft pink. "It's not common in moccasins to have that colorful lining. But the base of the moccasin is similar to a plains moccasin. We've just taken a more modern approach to make them a bit more hip and trendy," Running Fisher Jones said.

TPMOCS features three collections: Traditional, Urban and Limited. Custom design is also available. Among other attributes, TPMOCS are sinewed, or handfcrafted, from cowhide, and hand-stitched in a very unique pattern. "We've taken apart many moccasins to come up with this pattern. Our pattern is the only one in the market that looks like this," Running Fisher Jones said.

Traditionally, moccasins are made to order: a person would trace their foot on a piece of bison or deer hide. To commercially produce and sell them, TPMOCS relies on standard sizing. For newborns and infants sizes 0 to 3, TPMOCS feature a soft outsole made from supple cow hide, with a 100 percent cotton liner.

"They're very soft — they're designed for children. You just slip them on the child's foot, no socks needed," Running Fisher Jones said.

For infants trying or beginning to walk, sizes 4 to 7, TPMOCS are made with "a hard but flexible leather outsole in addition to soft cowhide material. So if they step on a rock, there's no issues for the children's feet," Running Fisher Jones said. "They're extremely, extremely durable. They're made to withstand all of the elements. They're designed to be passed on to other children as well."

As a business, TPMOCS is still in its infancy. The e-commerce website launched just six months ago. "We currently have two Blackfeet artisans. We are planning on hiring additional artisans as the business grows," Running Fisher Jones said.
While children's moccasins are her focus for now, Running Fisher Jones does plan to move into youth and adult moccasins. "We're at ages 0-2 now, and hopefully next we'll do ages 2-5," she said.

Meanwhile, TPMOCS is also working on other lines, like diaper bags, t-shirts, and a keychain, which is a way to allow people without children to support Native artisans and give back to tribal communities. "We're working on a keychain for people to be able to purchase that resembles the moccasins that we're making," she said.

Indian Country Today Media Network asked Running Fisher Jones to weigh in on a few other topics from cultural appropriation to her vision for the future of TPMOCS.

In a time of so much Native appropriation, what does it mean to you to offer a product made by Natives that gives back to Native communities?

I've seen this appropriation for so long. When we're doing market research, there isn't a single, major brand that makes children's moccasins — or for that matter adult moccasins — that are made by Native Americans. They're not tied to Indian country, and there's no effort to give back to the community where this culture comes from. So we're excited to potentially be one of the first companies that does that and to include that very heavily in our mission statement. That's the most important aspect of this brand for us: sharing our culture with non-Natives who can appreciate it, and ensuring that we can provide employment opportunities based upon our culture, and we can give some of that money back to the community that really needs it most.

Speaking of market research, would you compare your business model to a charitable company like TOMS?

We have spent a significant amount of time studying TOMS business model. I've read [owner] Blake Mycoskie's book [Start Something That Matters], to get an understanding of where he came from. He's got a fantastic business model, and we would love to become something like that.

What's interesting about our company is — our mocs are actually made in the U.S. We purchase our materials in the U.S., and a lot of these larger companies don't. Their shoes are made in China, or they're made in Mexico. They purchase their materials elsewhere. And with the exception of a company like TOMS, there's really no give-back component.

One of our major competitors is a company called Freshly Picked. I think they're slightly cheaper than us, by five or so dollars, but they're made in a factory and they don't give back. We'd love to model ourselves off somebody like TOMS or other companies that give back, but honestly, they're just aren't that many out there.

We face different challenges by paying U.S. wages as opposed to $2/hour in China. We've been asked, 'Why is the cost of your moccasins more than if I bought a pair at Payless, or if I bought a pair at Wal-Mart?' And our answer is simple: We employ Native American artisans, we pay U.S. wages, and we use a portion of those profits to give back to the community.

Beyond the two Blackfeet artisans, how big is your team?

We are truly, truly a startup. We have myself, a partner here in San Francisco, and one person in Seattle that helps with the marketing, as well as many (five to 10) family members in Montana who help with marketing. We have a pretty robust Instagram feed [Rock your mocs on Instagram @TPMOCS #TPMOCS] that we update along with Facebook. The roles and responsibilities — the lines are fairly blurred. Everybody does everything.

Can you speak to your vision of the future of TPMOCS?

We were recently accepted into Santa Clara University's Miller Center, which is an entrepreneurship program for social entrepreneurs that work to serve and make an impact for communities in need. For the next six months we're paired with two Silicon Valley mentors who are spending a significant amount of time combing through our business plan, helping us with marketing plans, just to grow the business overall. Within even the next year, we would like to be in boutiques. We've been told that at some point Nordstrom buyers would be interested in meeting with us. Nordstrom is one of those companies with which you get one shot, so we're holding off on that until we feel like we are in a position to match those orders or meet those demands.

We'd love to be in Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's and to continue to sell online and at boutiques across the country. You have to dream big.

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