Note: Originally published in the Washington Post on 4/29/2020
Robert DesJarlait is an artist and writer. He is from the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation in northern Minnesota.
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.
North Dakota state Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D), for instance, told the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., that the Land O’Lakes image of Mia went “hand-in-hand with human and sex trafficking of our women and girls … by depicting Native women as sex objects.” Others similarly welcomed the company’s removal of the “butter maiden” was long overdue.
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?
I know 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.
Mia was originally created for Land O’Lakes packaging in 1928. In 1939, she was redesigned as a native maiden kneeling in a farm field holding a butter box. In 1954, my father, Patrick DesJarlait, redesigned the image again.
My father had been interested in art since boyhood, when he drew images related to his Ojibwe culture. After leaving Pipestone boarding school in Minnesota in 1942, he joined the Navy and was assigned to San Diego, where he worked alongside animation artists from MGM and Walt Disney producing brochures and films for the war effort. In 1946, he established himself as one of the first modernists in American Indian fine art.
After I was born in 1946, my family moved from Red Lake, Minn., to Minneapolis, where my father broke racial barriers by establishing himself as an American Indian commercial artist in an art world dominated by white executives and artists. In addition to the Mia redesign, his many projects included creating the Hamm’s Beer bear. By often working with Native American imagery, he maintained a connection to his identity.
I was 8 years old when I met Mia. My father often brought his work home, and Mia was one of many commercial-art images I saw him work on in his studio.
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. 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 my education booklet, “Rethinking Stereotypes,” I noted that communicating misinformation is an underlying function of stereotypes, including through visual images. One way that these images convey misinformation is in a passive, subliminal way that uses inaccurate depictions of tribal symbols, motifs, clothing and historical references. The other kind of stereotypical, misinforming imagery is more overt, with physical features caricatured and customs demeaned. “Through dominant language and art,” I wrote, “stereotypic imagery allows one to see, and believe, in an invented image, an invented race, based on generalizations.”
I provided a number of examples. Mia wasn’t one of them. Not because she was part of my father’s legacy as a commercial artist and I didn’t want to offend him. Mia simply didn’t fit the parameters of a stereotype. Maybe that’s why many Native American women on social media have made it clear that they didn’t agree with those who viewed her as a romanticized and/or sexually objectified stereotype. Instead, Mia seems to have stirred a sense of remembrance and place, one that they found reassuring about their existence as Native American women.
I don’t know why Land O’Lakes dropped Mia. In 2018, the company changed the image by cropping it to a head shot. That adjustment didn’t seem like a bow to culturally correct pressure. Perhaps her disappearance this year is about nothing more than chief executive Beth Ford’s explanation that Land O’Lakes is focusing on the company’s heritage as a farmer-owned cooperative founded in 1921. But questions remain.
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.
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