Loaded Logos: Brands in History’s Shadow

Native American Logos

She almost died a quiet death, and certainly the Minnesota-based farmer cooperative known as Land O’Lakes would have preferred it that way. But when the Minnesota Reformer ran a story about the Land O’Lakes company retiring the Indian maiden who has appeared on its packaging for nearly a century, the story blew up on social media and elsewhere. Soon the retirement reached The New York Times and Fox News, leading U.S. congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) to denounce politically correct “millennials” supposedly taking over the co-op.

Now on the surface, the maiden mascot re-designed in the 1950’s by an Ojibwe Indian artist, Patrick DesJariat, may not seem anything other than benign. What’s objectionable about a young Native American woman kneeling by the side of a blue lake, holding a 4-stick box of butter? Her smile is pleasant enough – but that’s where the problem starts. That’s because the image of a happy Indian maiden evokes tales of U.S. cavalry troops stationed at reservation forts engaging in what they euphemistically called “squaw-chasing” and what we should acknowledge was coerced “seduction” or worse. Being portrayed as sexually available and subject to conquering isn’t desirable. Now, the smile alone might not get us to such a sinister reading of the Land O’Lakes logo. But add in the maiden’s kneeling, compliant posture, and the fact that for years people on social media have practiced the “boob trick” of revising the logo’s image so that the maiden’s knees are chest-high instead, and you can begin to see why the co-op finally, wisely, decently enough decided that the time had come to stop trafficking in Indian stereotypes.

The truth is that lots of logos exist that should be retired. Perhaps the worst prominent use of Native American imagery is in baseball: the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo. His eyebrows are raised and his eyes are wide open, fully alert. His smile is intense, too, and fierce. Taken together, the Chief’s beady eyes and all those teeth showing suggest how, when the mouth pulls wide and taut, the emotion being revealed is vivid anger, like a dog growling because its bone has been taken away.

Some offensive imagery has been retired; until 1991 a Mexican armed robber, the Frito Bandito, was used to sell that snack. Other vile brand logos remain. There’s a long history of African-Americans being made into caricatures, resembling the grateful, obsequious house servants in Gone with the Wind. I’m thinking of Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima and Mars’ chef, Uncle Ben, for instance. The recent modified versions of those logos are certainly more upscale, sleek and less servile-looking, but frankly my dear I don’t give a damn: get rid of them.