Yesterday, I was listening to NPR’s Scott Simon’s interview, On Chief Wahoo And Native American Imagery with the Smithsonian’s Paul Chaat Smith, co-curator of the current exhibit, “Americans,” at the National Museum of the American Indian. In the discussion of Native American representation, the Land O’ Lakes butter box was referenced:
SIMON: The Land O’ Lakes butter box – there’s a Native American on that. And an informal poll of people taken around here suggests a lot of people don’t even see her.
SMITH: Well, she’s in your refrigerator. And God knows what she’s doing at night. I never look closely at it myself. I do buy that brand. And when you look at it closely, what you see is she’s kneeling. And she’s holding the box that she’s in. And so it recedes into infinity. In other words, you know, in that box, you see her again and again and again. So it’s this amazing combination of American identity, a generic Indian with really brilliant graphic design that, you know, you don’t really notice. But I really do think she’s up to something at night in the refrigerator.
SIMON: (Laughter) I’ll check. Is it offensive?
SMITH: I think some of it is. Some of it isn’t.
When Smith mentioned the so-called butter maiden as slightly illicit — “God knows what she’s doing at night” — I sheepishly remembered my adolescence when I encountered the so-called butter maiden trick. I was shown that if you cut out the butter box she is holding, and then fold up the image, the maiden’s breasts appear where was the butter box.
Later, in high school, we learned how advertisers use subliminal seduction to subtly (or not so subtly) insert sexualized images to attract the viewer. At the time, I didn’t consider how the image might be offensive to Native Americans.
After some research, I see a strong case that the image perpetuates representations of Native American either negatively or neatly fitting into dominant views of American history.
As such, we created a (provisional) piece for the upcoming 6 X 6 exhibition at Rochester Contemporary. The piece explores the interrelationship between discourses of subliminal seduction (with a big dollop of juvenile male humor) and Native American-based discourses both ideologically slippery and exploitative.
So we ask you, readers, does the provisional submission actually perpetuate female objectification, if not cultural appropriation, or does the deconstructive approach draw attention to the image seen now in a different light — maybe even serving as rationale for its elimination? Illuminating or counter productive? Art or hog wash?
To begin, Wikepidea provides some historical background and elaborates on the interesting formal device mentioned by Smith:
The Land O’Lakes Indian maiden, named Mia holding the butter box was painted in 1928 by Brown & Bigelow illustrator Arthur C. Hanson. His original art hangs in the lobby of the Arden Hills office and depicts the maiden, Mia, in a pastoral scene with lakes, pines, flowers and grazing cows in the background. According to Land O’Lakes, the original Indian maiden, Mia, was “simplified and modernized” in 1939 by Jess Betlach and has undergone many minor modifications since as the enduring log of the co-op. Red Lake Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait updated Mia’s image in the 1950s.The package image is an example of the infinite-loop motif or Droste effect, in which the image is repeated, in theory infinitely, within itself.
At the same time, beyond the well crafted, colorful depiction of Mia and the recursive motif, a quick internet search reveals many academic, journalistic and general critiques of the cultural and social implications of the image.
Most powerful might be Of Flags & Butter: An Analysis of American White Supremacy Through Symbols by the Red Phoenix. Red Phoenix’s essay is drawn from the work of Native scholar and activist Ward Churchill:
The appearance of the “Indian maiden” owes more to stereotypes of Native peoples and culture promoted in the media and Hollywood than it does any reality of the Native nations that inhabited the plains of North America. The name itself “Land O Lakes” comes from a phrase used by European settlers to describe Minnesota – the land of ten thousand lakes. The name used by the company for this logo is the “Indian maiden,” a term deemed derogatory today, with most Natives preferring the terms “Native peoples” or “first nations.” The term “Indian” to mean the Indigenous nations of the Americas is based upon the European settlers’ mistaken belief they had landed in the West Indies. The design of the logo on Land O’Lakes butter exploits racist stereotypes of Native American culture and the mascot’s servile pose serves to place both Natives and women into a position of servitude to the customer, presenting them with a product as a servant would. The kneeling of the “Indian maiden” clearly puts her in a position of service to a higher power.
Every aspect of the Native woman in the logo is based on American stereotypes of Natives, from her animal skin outfit and beads, to her headdress and hair style, and even the to the idea of the slender, cheerful and naive Native princess character, epitomized in other infamous portrayals of this archetype such as the wildly inaccurate adaptations of the story of Pocahontas. The wide smile donned by the woman in the logo serves an ideological purpose as well, quite literally putting a smile on a history of ethnic cleansing and genocide of Natives. The image of the Native woman offering the butter in a servile pose is offered as a positive image, associated with a widely-consumed food product. It amounts to dehumanization of Natives and women and the further stereotyping of an entire culture, all for the purpose of selling a commodity. In this equation, someone is clearly benefiting from having descendents of Europeans ignorant about Native Americans.
As Red Phoenix paraphrases Churchill, he presents a strong case that the image of the butter maiden is not simply innocent or innocuous but ridden with servility and dehumanization.
Similarly, in Land O Lakes Butter, Natasha Holtman of Macalester College points to sexualized and fetishized elements in which the maiden appears to worship the butter to be consumed by its non-native buyers:
In the middle of each panel kneels an over-sexualized Native American woman in a fetishized idea of traditional garb, a slim, beaded buckskin dress and simple, feathered headband with red, white and blue feathers. She perches smiling and radiant in a lush, green field. In the background flows a bright blue river, and the rising sun paints the sky with the same buttery yellow that tinges the company logo. In her hands, is a Land O’ Lakes butter container just like the one on which she is pictured. Her position suggests that she is worshipping this object, or perhaps offering it up as a prized gift. . .
While some artifacts reflect change, the Land O’ Lakes container does the opposite. Consequently, it provides perspective on three ongoing phenomena with long histories: racial injustice against Native Americans; majority-Caucasian willingness to ignore injustice by focusing on a fiction, and consumers’ tendency to experience confidence and security when they encounter enduring images from the past.
Holtman accurately points to the images’ artificially-feeling sense of timelessness. Furthermore, Holtman suggests the time has come for an update reflecting contemporary ethics.
Not surprisingly, those on the internet who focus on subliminal seduction — as seen in myriad posts for the Indian butter trick — are almost entirely ignorant or unconcerned that the image might be culturally insensitive. Most apologize for their juvenile indulgences even as they display various methods of performing the trick, harkening a return to adolescence.
In the end, however, all the “good fun” of the trick is not necessarily so funny when we place the image in its — yes — sexist and racist contexts. Maybe we do need a new Land ‘O Lakes mascot.
UPDATE: artist and sometimes Talker Ray Ray Mitrano makes a valid case that — as of now — the piece: “Feels complicit. Definitely perpetuates. How about a re-design. The woman with her back to the viewer? Kneeling toward the water.”
To which Ray Ray adds a poem:
“Not My Knees”
Land O Whites
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On Rochester Contemporary