Jori Miller Sherer, Minnetonka President (Left), Adrienne Benjamin, Reconciliation Advisor (Center), David Miller, Minnetonka CEO (Right)
By Adrienne Benjamin, Reconciliation Advisor, Anishanaabe artist and local community activist
Late last year, I was introduced to Jori Miller Sherer and David Miller through a mutual work acquaintance. I was briefed ahead of the meeting by this person; being told that I was meeting with the heads of a company that has been known for appropriation over the years. I wasn’t sure what to think or to expect, but I trusted in the guidance and good heart of the community elder doing the introduction and attended the meeting.
I felt genuine remorse, openness, understanding, concern, and vulnerability immediately from the Millers. They opened with a clear declaration of understanding and an honest apology for the blatant appropriation in their products, marketing, and even their company name. They were well aware of the financial gain that they had benefitted from Anishinaabe and Dakota names, crafts, and culture.
They wanted to make a change. For years, they explained that they had been wanting to do “something” but didn’t have a clear grasp of what exactly to do or how to go about it. They explained how they had quietly given financial donations, as an organization and as a family, to Indigenous organizations locally and nationally. They had been meeting with different Indigenous artists and activists in the industry to better understand appropriation and to hear first-hand the effects that it has had on Indigenous people not just here in Minnesota, but across the country.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, these issues had become front and center, not just locally, but nationally as well. Many inquiries started to come into the company about their appropriation, whether or not their products were “Native-Made,” and even questioning the validity of other partnerships that they had taken part in. Prior to this, Minnetonka had then begun doing internal work on a plan to deal with these issues in small steps, but with the tide of change happening across the country, they knew that now was the time to be brave and move ahead with more bold approaches, moves, and changes.
This is where I came in. The elder who approached me about talking to Minnetonka had expressed her deep concerns about other activists that she had talked to being dismissive of attempts by this company to do better and be better. She felt like everyone deserved a chance to change, everyone deserved to be educated, and that they deserved a chance to prove that their words and apologies had meaning behind them. Of course, I understood where others were coming from in being dismissive. There are always companies, corporations, and other major retailers who are willing to make apologies when they’re called out, but then not follow through with the deep internal work beyond that to bring about meaningful change. As reluctant as I was about the situation, I agreed to the meeting.
One thing that struck me in that first meeting was the honesty that the Millers showed in their admissions, in their unknowing, and in their knowing. They realize their wrongdoings, they understand that they don’t understand everything, but with what they do know, they are incredibly willing and ready to take on the difficult conversations and move forward in the best ways possible. I explained the non-sugar-coated version of my understandings of appropriation and the effects that it had and still has on Indigenous families and artists. I explained the anger and even rage that Indigenous people feel towards these types of companies and their false misrepresentations of Indigenous cultures and how it has led to continued commercial violence, stereotypical sexualization of Indigenous women, and even further appropriation of our cultures for the benefit of sales and financial wealth. I held nothing back in this conversation. I wanted to be sure that not only were they willing to listen, but that they were willing to be educated, and to take what was said and still want to move ahead.
To my surprise, they did. A few weeks later, I received a meeting request from Jori and David and in that meeting they offered me a paid position within their company, with the job title of my choice, centered around repairing relations, financial reparations, and leading a plan for their company to do better; in regard to their appropriation and history of financial capitalization of Indigenous cultural items.
I took time to think about this offer. Many things flooded my head. My knee jerk response was to jump in and help, but I still felt nervous about how others in my community might be quick to assume, judge, or chastise me for my choice to work with this organization. At the end of the day, I have come to understand in my career that there will always be nay-sayers and those with doubt about your work and the reasoning behind it; but knowing your own heart’s intentions and remaining solid in that is the best that you can do. Those who know you will always understand and support you, and those who can be brought to understand if they are willing. While systemic change can be a painfully slow, stressful, and drawn-out process; it has also always been the most rewarding part of my career. To change even one mind, to be given a chance to educate others, and to open doors for other Native people through the same channel was an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse.
So, we immediately got to work. There were some things that were already in process before I was involved, such as an acknowledgement of appropriation on the company website, a logo and branding change, and continued meetings with other Indigenous advisors on best practice.
My first thought in our planning was to give back. When a company is called out, there are always words, but real change and effort undoubtedly starts with the redistribution and sharing of resources. Since much of this company’s wealth came from appropriation, it would only be right for this company to truly invest back into those communities from which it stole. We have started meeting with different heads of organizations, schools, non-profits, and tribal entities to talk about financial need, programming sponsorships, and long-term investments. To me, that must come first and foremost. No artist, activist, or the like will want to work with nor trust an organization that is not putting its money where its mouth is in reference to its appropriation, and the benefits, they’ve experienced because of it.
Secondly, a public facing message must be of utmost importance, not just for industry partners as an example of correct movement through these challenges, but for the Indigenous community as well to know there has been an apology, an open admission of guilt, and to know that there is viable work happening for the betterment of all parties involved. We should talk openly and candidly about our new journey together, and as we navigate this, the company will then be held accountable not just by me, but by the public.
The next major part of this work as we have decided, is to give more opportunity to local Indigenous artists. Paying for the redesigning of appropriative fabric designs and utilizing local Mni Sota graphic artists for web design, company apparel, and limited run shirt campaigns. Hiring local artists to create art and design internally at Minnetonka headquarters through mural installation and other visual and interactive artworks. To make a regular practice of hiring more models of color for brand ad campaigns. To create partnerships with Indigenous artists to give light and audience to their work by supporting and purchasing their work as a partner in sales on the Minnetonka brand website.
A subject that is still in discussion but very important to the Minnetonka business is the Thunderbird design that the company is most notoriously known for. There has been much discussion about the possibility of doing away with the design entirely, having an Indigenous Mni Sota artist redesign it or come up with a new design entirely that can eventually replace it. Those discussions and decisions are still in early stages and are currently being worked on.
Another important and inspiring aspect of our plan moving forward is to utilize Minnetonka’s extensive knowledge base on business and sales to educate Indigenous youth across Mni Sota and beyond. There have been discussions with public and tribal school officials in hopes of creating partnerships for learning. Inviting Indigenous youth to tour the Minnetonka headquarters, engage with the Indigenous graphic designers and artists working for Minnetonka, and learn the ins and outs of business protocol firsthand through lecture series and on-site visits.
It is our hope that eventually, these working and participatory artists and educators will become an advisory board to Minnetonka and that there will be seats on the company’s executive board for Indigenous voices, as there always should have been. There are many things to be excited about with the future of this company and the opportunities for Indigenous artists to be a part of the move forward.
During this time, my personal and professional relationship with the Millers has grown. We went from many Zoom meetings online, to finally meeting in person. I toured the Minnetonka company headquarters and was introduced to staff, shown around the warehouse, and was even gifted a super fun pair of slippers that I now lovingly refer to as my “Rainbow Muppets.” Through all of that, we have been working tirelessly on messaging, opportunities, donations, and networking with individuals to make these plans come to fruition. It has been my utmost joy and honor to help this process along and watch as the opportunities for growth occur; not only for Indigenous artists and youth, but for this company and its owners as well. Showing the world a different way to be and being a leader in doing the right thing is never easy, but I truly give the Millers credit for stepping up, educating themselves, taking the heat, and giving it their best efforts.
For more information on Minnetonka’s Native American commitment please visit https://www.minnetonkamoccasin.com/our-commitment-to-the-native-american-community
Adrienne Benjamin, Reconciliation Advisor, Anishanaabe artist and local community activist