Land O’Lakes quietly gets rid of iconic Indian maiden mascot

Land O'Lakes released new packaging without an Indian maiden for the first time in nearly a century in February 2020. Photo courtesy of Land O'Lakes.

For nearly a century, the Land O’Lakes Indian maiden has kneeled by the side of a blue lake holding out an offering of a 4-stick box of butter.

No more. The Minnesota-based farmer cooperative has redesigned its packaging to focus on celebrating farmers ahead of its 100th anniversary next year.

“We need packaging that 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,” President and CEO Beth Ford said in a statement in February.

The new packaging looks much like the old packaging — blue lake, green pine trees, yellow horizon — just minus Mia, the name of the Indian maiden.

The release made no mention of why the company decided to remove the character from their packaging. The entire Land O’Lakes website seems to have been scrubbed of any mention of the iconic mascot.

A spokeswoman for Land O’Lakes did not respond to a request for comment submitted Monday.

For Native Americans who have long criticized the use of Indian mascots, the change is a welcome one.

“It’s a great move,” said Adrienne Keene, a professor at Brown University, author of the popular Native Appropriations blog and citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “It makes me really happy to think that there’s now going to be an entire generation of folks that are growing up without having to see that every time they walk in the grocery store.”

Photo by NMAI Photo Services.

But Keene thinks the company missed an important opportunity in not explaining why they removed the image of the Indian maiden from their brand.

“It could have been a very strong and positive message to have publicly said, ‘We realized after a hundred years that our image was harmful and so we decided to remove it,’” Keene said. “In our current cultural moment, that’s something people would really respond to.”

The Indian maiden first appeared on Land O’Lakes packaging in 1928, seven years after the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association — as it was first called — was founded by 320 farmers in St. Paul.

Arthur C. Hanson, an illustrator for the ad firm Brown and Bigelow, came up with the original design evoking rural Minnesota with a blue lake, green pine trees and a Native woman center stage in a buckskin dress and feather headdress.

It imbued the Land O’Lakes brand with a sense of naturalness, nostalgia and American authenticity, a tactic used by thousands of companies to sell everything from butter to cigarettes to motorcycles, as a recent exhibition at the Smithsonian shows. Keene noted in one blog post that she could create an entire breakfast menu plus snacks using ingredients with Native mascots.

The packaging was redesigned in the 1950s by Patrick DesJarlait, a highly-successful Ojibwe artist from Red Lake. He said he was interested in “fostering a sense of Indian pride” across the Midwest.

“Today is a very different time than the 1950s. The 1950s was the termination era, and there were a lot of real threats to Native people’s existence,” Keene said, referring to the federal campaign to dissolve treaties, dismantle tribal governments and eliminate reservations. “During that time there might have been some power to being able to associate with a major brand like Land O’Lakes and to have a role in shaping the representation.”

Robert DesJarlait, the artist’s son, says he’s glad Land O’Lakes removed the Indian maiden his father helped create but also continues to be proud of his father’s legacy, which includes creating the Hamm’s Beer bear and being one of the first Native modernist painters.

“It was a source of pride for people to have a Native artist doing that kind of work,” said DesJarlait, who’s also an artist. “He was breaking a lot of barriers . . .Back in the 50s, nobody even thought about stereotypical imagery. Today it’s a stereotype, but it’s also a source of cultural pride. It’s a paradox in that way.”

DesJarlait and Keene said people have come to better understand the impact of these representations.

“The conversation has shifted so much. We have scientific, psychological research that shows the harms of these types of representations,” she said.

The American Psychological Association in 2005 called for all American Indian mascots to be retired, citing a large body of social science research showing how racial stereotypes and inaccurate representations harm Native young people’s self-esteem and social identity.

Keene says the Indian maiden stereotype is deeply entrenched in American culture, presenting Native women as being pure, sexually available and something to be conquered like nature.

Then there’s the “boob trick” in which you can make the packaging even more disrespectful by turning Mia’s knees into her boobs. “Something lots of dads teach their kids,” one YouTuber noted.

“It’s not a benign image,” Keene said.

* This story has been updated with comments from Robert DesJarlait.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.