49 Native Design: Connecting entrepreneurship with cultural rejuvenation

(ANNews) - In the vast expanses of Southern Alberta, amidst the ancestral territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, J. Nathan Rainy Chief emerges as a guiding force for Indigenous entrepreneurship and cultural rejuvenation. Descending from the Kainai First Nation, Rainy Chief's journey is deeply ingrained in his Indigenous lineage, tracing back to the revered chiefs of his tribe during the signing of Treaty 7.

Rainy Chief's upbringing resonates with the profound traditions passed down by his forebears. He fondly reminisces about the influence of his great-great-grandmother, Rosie Davis, an esteemed elder and masterful beadwork artisan. Her enduring legacy, showcased in museums across North America, stands as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the Blackfoot people.

49 Native Design Inc., the brainchild of J. Nathan Rainy Chief and his partner, began not as a planned business venture but as a serendipitous opportunity. Rainy Chief was recently honoured with a 2023 Indigenous Business Builder Series award by the Aboriginal Community Features in Calgary. This prestigious recognition is bestowed upon prominent business leaders in the Southern Alberta region.

"49 Design, at the very beginning, was never really meant to be a business," explained Rainy Chief. "My partner created a pea coat on Facebook, and someone asked, 'Can you make one? I’ll pay you,' and that's how it started." This spontaneous start has evolved into a mission-driven enterprise that emphasizes cultural authenticity and community support.

Initially starting in Kansas, the founders' vision has grown substantially. "49 Native Design Inc. actually started in Kansas, and my partner and I decided to partner together and create the business. We combined our talents, and I helped with growing it into a business," recounted Rainy Chief. He highlighted the importance of collaboration, stating, "You achieve a lot more when you build each other."

The decision to base their operations in Canada rather than the U.S. was strategic. "We see a lot more potential in Canada than we do in the States," said Rainy Chief. Opening a business, especially one rooted in cultural authenticity, comes with significant financial challenges. "We didn’t want to just start a storefront. We were trying to get enough capital, and it costs a lot to open a business, like a lot."

Supporting local businesses and the Canadian economy has been a cornerstone of their strategy. "In order to support business, you have to support local, and that’s how you make the Canadian economy thrive. It’s the most influential way you can support businesses," noted Rainy Chief. The company's focus on identity and culture is clear in their approach: "We cultivate our audiences and then ask them what they want, and then we provide that need in an authentic, culturally appropriate way."

Rainy Chief shared insights into their cross-border experiences, emphasizing their commitment to their roots. "We are a bunch of prairie boys going down to the States, and it’s a totally different culture down there," he said. Despite these influences, they moved back to Canada to ensure their business stayed true to its roots.

One of their key missions is to promote authenticity and proper representation of Indigenous culture. "That’s what we’re pushing for – authenticity, representation, and Indigenous-owned content led by the community," emphasized Rainy Chief.

49 Design aims to offer more than just products; they strive to create experiences and educational opportunities. "We love having to refresh ourselves with new ideas, and that’s why we have a store that invites people in interactive ways," said Rainy Chief. Their store serves as a space for contemporary Indigenous people to find culturally appropriate activewear and other items.

Their commitment to authenticity is evident in their design process. "If you look at our designs, they’re really rich in culture. These are authentic, culturally appropriate designs. We did the work to make sure that the community respects us and that we respect the community," explained Rainy Chief. This mutual respect is why they invite artists into their store, fostering a reciprocal relationship.

Educational initiatives are a crucial part of 49 Design's offerings. "We are offering classes in our stores because it’s about culture in motion and identity. We are serving people who are living their lives and Indigenous people who want culturally appropriate access to culture," said Rainy Chief. They provide ribbon skirt kits and classes on how to make them, addressing a gap in accessible information, especially in urban centers.

Their efforts are about more than just selling products; they aim to connect traditional families and urban centres, preserving authenticity. "It’s about authenticity and access," emphasized Rainy Chief.

49 Design is optimistic about the future of Indigenous identity. "Right now is a good time to be Indigenous. There’s just an awakening of our people," said Rainy Chief. They believe that despite past efforts to suppress Indigenous culture, there is now a hunger for identity. "People are craving identity after Canada robbed Indigenous people of their identity," he noted.

49 Design is more than a business; it’s a mission to support local economies, promote authentic cultural representation, and provide educational opportunities that honour and preserve Indigenous traditions. Their journey from a small, unexpected start to a flourishing business underscores the power of community, collaboration, and cultural pride.

Since taking ownership of 49 Design, Nathan has driven the company's expansion to international markets and earned a feature in the Wall Street Journal. His journey, marked by resilience as a former residential school attendee, saw 49 Design launch its first physical store in Calgary in 2020. After building success with an online e-commerce business for three years, this expansion continued with the opening of a second storefront in Edmonton in 2021, further cementing 49 Design’s presence in the retail sector and crediting Edmonton’s community for supporting his business. For more information, check out 49dzine.ca.

Chevi Rabbit, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alberta Native News