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‘Got rid of the Indian, kept the land’: Son of Native American ‘Land-o-Lakes’ artist rips move to banish ‘Mia’

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The son of the American Indian commercial artist who once redesigned “Mia” — the iconic woman that had been the Land O’ Lakes brand image for nearly a century — said in an op-ed Wednesday she was never a “stereotype” that depicted Native Americans in a bad light.

Writing in the Washington Post, Robert DesJarlait, an artist and writer from the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation in Minnesota, addressed the company’s recent decision to remove the image of Mia from their products earlier this year.

He noted:

She was never a stereotype.

That was my thought earlier this month when I heard that “Mia,” as the Land O’Lakes Native American maiden was known, had been taken off the butter box. She was gone, vanished, missing. I knew Mia had devolved into a stereotype in many people’s minds. But it was the stereotype some saw that bothered me.

DesJarlait cited comments from North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D), who told the Pioneer Press that the image of Mia went “hand-in-hand with human and sex trafficking of our women and girls … by depicting Native women as sex objects.”

“Yes, it’s a good thing for the company to remove the image. … But we can’t stop there,” Buffalo — a registered member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation — continued. “We as a whole need to keep pushing forward to address the underlying issues that directly impact an entire population that survived genocide.”

DesJarlait added that others had also welcomed removing Mia, the “butter maiden,” from the company’s packaging.

But, he wondered, “How did Mia go from being a demur Native American woman on a lakeshore to a sex object tied to the trafficking of native women?”

According to the Pioneer Press, Land O’Lakes President and CEO Beth Ford said the purpose of the label change was to acknowledge the Minnesota-based company’s farmer-owners “whose milk is used to produce Land O’ Lakes products as it prepared to turn 100 years old.”

The label will continue to feature the same yellow background framed by a backdrop of trees behind a lake, but instead of Mia, the new logo will use the term “Farmer-Owned” above the brand name.

“As a farmer-owned co-op, we strongly feel the need to better connect the men and women who grow our food with those who consume it,” Ford said in February. “Our farmer-to-fork structure gives us a unique ability to bridge this divide.”

The Hill reported:

The Native American woman had long been viewed by critics as cultural appropriation and insensitive toward tribal communities. 

American indigenous academic Lisa Monchalin wrote in her book “The Colonial Problem: An Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada” that the Land O’Lakes woman was an example of the romanticized and sexualized construction of indigenous women. 

And for his part, DesJarlait noted in the Post that he understands and knows the meaning of stereotypes.

“I participated in protests against mascots and logos using American Indian images in the early 1990s, including outside the Metrodome in Minneapolis when Washington’s team played the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 Super Bowl. In 1993, I wrote a booklet for the Anoka-Hennepin Indian Education Program about these stereotypes,” he wrote.

But, he continued, the image of Mia was originally adopted by the company in 1928. Eleven years later she was redesigned as a native maiden kneeling in a farm field holding a box of butter. And in 1954, his father, Patrick DesJarlait, redesigned her again.

That said, his father’s intention was never to depict Mia as just another stereotype — quite the opposite, in fact.

“With the redesign, my father made Mia’s Native American connections more specific. He changed the beadwork designs on her dress by adding floral motifs that are common in Ojibwe art,” Robert DesJarlait wrote. “He added two points of wooded shoreline to the lake that had often been depicted in the image’s background. It was a place any Red Lake tribal citizen would recognize as the Narrows, where Lower Red Lake and Upper Red Lake meet.”

In his educational pamphlet “Rethinking Stereotypes,” DesJarlait said that one of the ways stereotypes are created is through “communicating misinformation” — something his father clearly did not do with his Mia redesign.

“I provided a number of examples” in his pamphlet, DesJarlait wrote in the Post. “Mia wasn’t one of them,” and that wasn’t because of his father’s involvement in redesigning her.

She “simply didn’t fit the parameters of a stereotype,” he wrote, adding he doesn’t really know why Land O’ Lakes made its decision to change their label. But he noted that the result is the lessening of Native American history.

“Mia’s vanishing has prompted a social media meme: ‘They Got Rid of The Indian and Kept the Land.’ That isn’t too far from the truth. Mia, the stereotype that wasn’t, leaves behind a landscape voided of identity and history. For those of us who are American Indian, it’s a history that is all too familiar,” he said.

Jon Dougherty

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