By Rachel Beecher
“Mom I thought you said that they got rid of her on their packaging, look, there she is,” said my daughter, Aria while out shopping at a local store back in February. I responded, “Oh wow, I thought they removed that image from their packaging, but there she is, there’s Mia, still pictured on the whip cream cans, that’s interesting.”
Although Land O’ Lakes has a great tasting spreadable butter (my favorite in fact), I have been boycotting the product for years since they continue to use a potentially harmful caricature to sell their products. Even when Land O’ Lakes recently chose to pull her off some of their butter products without explanation, recognition, or apology, it left a really bad taste in my mouth. Now that we’ve passed the one year anniversary of Land O’ Lakes removal of their butter icon, and it’s time to have this conversation again.
A Saturday Night Live episode, from November 8th, 2020 (with over eight million viewers on Youtube) has a particular skit on “cancel culture.” The skit alluded to the uncomfortable truths of our horrific historic past through a modern day lens during the satirical skit. At the very end of it, actor Baldwin, portraying a big corp executive, shouted out “…send in the Land O’ Lakes lady please,” but without any known Native actor or writer on staff, or lack of research, they did not even say her real name. Mia was her name, and although her character was not portrayed during this skit, the theme alluded to the overall use of these types of iconic characters, cultures, and themes and how businesses profited off of these products for many decades without a second thought as to what that meant to the rest of society. Satire can be a powerful tool for conversation-starting. And, it can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and erase the very voices it’s meant to uplift. In this case, SNL has some ways to go on the way they represent Native issues.
Like SNL, many corporations have made recent efforts to be more culturally sensitive and inclusive. Particularly during the 2020 social upheaval in response to the murder of George Floyd. Companies realized that outdated and potentially racist imagery and themes would harm the brand, and ultimately their bottom dollar. But by not acknowledging their part, or trying to erase their role in these historically false use of cultures and peoples, they may still do harm. Some businesses made public statements while others simply pulled images off of their merchandise without explanation.
Mia has been missing from some of the Land O’ Lakes packaging since April 2020 and according to an article from eatthis.com, they still made a record number of butter sales due to the pandemic with people home cooking and baking more.
After reading articles from the Washington Post and wordpress.com, along with some youtube videos and social media posts, I learned more about the history of Mia. I found out that she had been reimaged several times, once by a famous Ojibwe artist, Patrick DesJarlait, in the mid 50s. Apparently, he strove to make Mia look more traditional in her regalia and, at the time, did not intentionally portray her to look, or be perceived as, overly romanticized. The artist’s adult children have publically vocalized their mixed feelings about the perception of Mia even comparing her to stereotypes like former team mascots.
The fact that Land O’ Lakes hired a Native artist back in the 50s, shows that they knew how to continue their icon through a more authentic lens. Although butter and mass produced dairy products are not part of an authentic or traditional Anishinaabe diet, Land O’ Lakes knew better to consult with the very Natives she apparently represented. By not hiring an indigenous person, preferably female, to help with a public relations statement, redesign a new package, advertise Mia’s backstory, fully remove the icon, or offer a sincere apology on behalf of the company, they continue to serve a great injustice. They simply shifted focus to the farmers, who probably should have been pictured on the packaging all along. Now we, the public, are left without this backstory, a history of using cultures and profit before people, and this is in very bad taste.
My daughter and I have some Anishinaabe (a broadly-used term for Ojibwe Odawa, Saulteaux, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Oji-Cree, and Algonquin peoples) ancestry and are culturally finding our way back slowly, like many other displaced and disenfranchised relatives. So, when we heard that Land O’ Lakes was removing the female icon, we were excited and waited for the official press release, the apology. I thought, “Yes, another small win for accurate representation and no more exploitation of Native peoples.” However, there was no explanation, no apology, or recourse and I am wondering, “Why is she still pictured on the whipped cream cans?”
I see many posts concerning the removal of Mia as a part of a recurring pattern where Native women go missing, in this case an “icon,” without explanation, and yet the land is still there, visually portrayed with added trees, her absence now has a “remove the Indian but keep the land” as the sentiment. Although I agree with removing harmful images that are based on lies, the company should have provided an explanation, apology, and action, steps towards righting this wrong. Now consumers are left to draw their own potentially harmful conclusions.
As I stare at the new packaging that features the same idyllic pastoral background without the light-skinned Native woman, I grow more concerned, knowing some of the continuous issues facing First Nations of Indigenous Peoples. Could Land O’ Lakes own up to their part in some of this? Will they be responsive and responsible? Are they willing to work with locals to bring more awareness, help to culturally and inclusively inform the public of our historic past dealings, create scholarships and fund programs to uplift these communities?
Placing a real person’s image on the packaging and adding a QR code linking consumers to a site featuring Indigneous women and the important work that they do would be a great start, I call this the MIA project. When the public can see the real beauty of Native women, the culture past and present, we can begin to hold people accountable for their actions while raising awareness for MMIW, which is plaguing the Native community.
Working with a Native consultancy to gain permission and perspective, Land O’ Lakes could gather the women’s likeness and story in a respectful way, adding links, bios, and stories of perseverance and strength, helping to rectify those many years of sending out a cartoon image. Hopefully, this company, along with other businesses, will feel inclined to partake in the MIA project and donate a portion of all butter sales to the MMIW task force Interior Secretary Deb Haaland just established. #butterwithapurpose #sayhernameandshareherstory.
The MIA Project! Here is a list of well-known, or respected, Indigenous women that Land O’ Lakes could feature, 92+ names for the 92+ years:
Anna Mae Aquash
Annie Dodge Wauneka
Bamewawagezhikaquay Jane Johnston Schoolcraft
Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture
Clara Nezbah Sherman
Crystal Echo Hawk
Dolly Cusker Akers
Dr. Jessica Rickert
Dr. Lilian Dyck
Dr. Stephanie Fryberg
Dr. Susan La Flesche
Elise Charles Basque
Elouise Pepion Cobell, Yellow Bird Woman
Gahahno, Caroline Parker Mount Pleasant
June Mamagona Fletcher
Louis Ellen Frank
Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin
Mary Golda Ross
Mary Two Axe Earley
Matilda Joslyn Gage
Mekayla Diehl Eppers
Minnie Two Shoes
Randy’L He-dow Teton
Running Eagle Brown Weasel Woman Ruth Smith
Sacheen Little Feather
Shiela Watt Cloutier
Susette La Flesche Tibbles
Sutton Ola Mildred Millie Rexroat
Tacumwah Marie-Louise Pacanne Richerville Tanya Tagaq
Zitkala-Sa, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin