Land O Lakes dairy products company “retired” its iconic Native American maiden, “Mia,” who appeared on its products for half a century, potentially over concerns that the image was a “stereotype” and presented an unfair, racist portrait of the Native American community.
The son of the artist who drew Land O Lakes’ maiden says that’s simply not true. His father, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation, designed “Mia” to reflect his Native American heritage and her attire has its roots in Ojibwe history.
In a statement released earlier this month, Land O Lakes CEO Beth Ford said the new design, which features only the lake itself — the dairy products hail from the “Land of Lakes,” Minnesota — reflects “the foundation and heart of our company culture—and nothing does that better than our farmer-owners whose milk is used to produce Land O’Lakes’ dairy products.”
She did not reference the Native American logo as specifically problematic, but activists, many of whom are in opposition to depictions of Native Americans in logos — particularly logos of sports teams and consumer products — hailed the change and even Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, also a member of the Ojibwe Nation, approved of the change.
“Thank you to Land O’Lakes for making this important and needed change,” she tweeted. “Native people are not mascots or logos. We are very much still here.”
But the story of Land O Lakes iconic Native American maiden isn’t so cut and dry. Although she originally appeared on packaging in the 1920 and was updated in the 1930s, as more consumers began purchasing refrigerators and could store dairy items, and demand for Land O Lakes products skyrocketed, the current iteration of “Mia” was from the mid-1950s. The artist, Patrick DesJarlait, Native American himself, wanted to “foster a sense of Indian pride” (his words, per the Smithsonian), during a time when Native American heritage wasn’t celebrated.
“With the redesign, my father made Mia’s Native American connections more specific,” his son, Robert DesJarlait, wrote in The Washington Post this week. “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.”
Robert still supports Land O Lakes’ decision — he says he remains opposed to images of Native Americans used as logos and says that Land O Lakes hasn’t been specific about its rationale for changing designs, so its not clear they “caved” to any kind of cultural pressure — but wants consumers to understand the difference between “stereotypical, misinforming imagery” which perverts customs and cultures, and what his father was trying to do with “Mia.”
One thing that does seem to bother Robert: Land O Lakes’ decision to wipe Native American history out of the company’s story. Referencing a social media meme that took off in the days following Land O Lakes’ decision, “They Got Rid of The Indian and Kept the Land,” he cautions the company to avoid whitewashing Minnesota history and giving credit only to modern farmers.
“Mia, the stereotype that wasn’t, leaves behind a landscape voided of identity and history,” he says. “For those of us who are American Indian, it’s a history that is all too familiar.”