It’s an image everyone knows. A young Native woman kneels on a patch of grass, blue waters and green trees behind her. She’s wearing a buckskin dress and has two feathers in her hair. She holds out both hands, smiling, as she offers the viewer a pound of Land O’Lakes butter.
“Mia the butter maiden,” as she’s called, first appeared on packaging in 1928. Her presence at the American kitchen table has spanned generations — until the last several months, when Land O’Lakes phased her out.
In the 1950s, Red Lake Chippewa artist Patrick DesJarlait was hired to give Mia an update. His son Robert remembers it with pride.
“Back in the ’50s, you didn't have Native artists doing that kind of work,” he said. “So he was really breaking a lot of barriers back then.”
Robert says his father added traditional Ojibwe floral motifs to Mia’s outfit. It’s a detail that you likely wouldn’t notice if it wasn’t part of your culture.
Govinda Budrow is on the faculty of Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. She says different generations have different relationships with the image.
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“I know from my mother's generation especially, it represented basically the only representation that she had,” Budrow said. “Nothing was being talked about in terms of Native people. It wasn't even OK to be Native during their generation.”
Budrow said that for her parents’ generation, the butter maiden offered a rare positive representation of her culture, even if the image was skewed.
“It was the one thing that smiled back at them to say, hey, other people exist like you and they are out there,” she said.
As for Budrow, she said she’s glad the image is gone — the butter maiden was a token image whose presence was never explained. She was powerless and voiceless. When Budrow was growing up, boys and men would fold the package so it made the maiden’s knees look like bare breasts. For them, it was a joke to do something demeaning and sexualized to an image of a smiling Native woman.
Budrow says it’s how the image went away that’s problematic. Land O’Lakes made the change quietly, stating in a press release on the company’s website that new packaging would celebrate the members of its dairy farming cooperative.
The rebranding comes just as the Arden Hills-based company is getting ready to celebrate its 100th year. No mention was made of the iconic woman who had graced its cartons for much of the past century, or why she was leaving. When contacted by MPR for an interview, a representative responded the company had no one available to answer media questions.
Budrow said that in disappearing without a trace, and with no one talking about it, Mia has become more like a contemporary Native woman than ever before.
“It just seemed way too ironic when I was thinking about this, about how things happen to indigenous women even now today, where women are being trafficked, they're being over-sexualized, they're not being heard within spaces, are not being seen within spaces,” she said. “And then they go missing and there's nothing being said about them. And we're not having discussions about how do we stop this from happening.”
Budrow said if Land O’Lakes wants to truly honor the Native woman it used to sell its product for so many years, it should consider replacing her image with photos of missing indigenous mothers, sisters and daughters — and maybe help to bring them home.