Minnetonka Apologizes to Native American Community After Decades-Long History of Cultural Appropriation

After 75 years in business, Minnetonka is apologizing to the Native American community. Today, the Minnesota-based footwear company is announcing publicly that it recognizes that its original products launched in 1946, some of which are still sold today, have been appropriated from Native American culture.

Minnetonka acknowledged their appropriation in the summer of 2020, though CEO David Miller said this public apology was long overdue.

“While our history with appropriation has come from a place of ignorance and not maliciousness, the end result was the same — it is not OK,” he told FN. “On behalf of Minnetonka, we would like to deeply and meaningfully apologize for having benefited from selling Native-inspired designs without directly honoring Native American culture or communities. Although we cannot change the past, we are determined to honor and invest in Indigenous communities in the future. Once you begin to understand that you’ve participated in appropriation, you cannot go back and therefore going forward in a better way is the only option.”

On why it took so long to do this, Miller cited fear of taking that first step, and confronting negative backlash.

To further its commitment to support the Native American community, Minnetonka has hired Adrienne Benjamin as a reconciliation advisor. She is a Minnesotan, Anishinaabe, and a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

(L-R) Jori Miller-Sherer, Adrienne Benjamin and David Miller.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Minnetonka

Minnetonka has created a strong business off of its signature moccasin silhouette, which is an indigenous creation. (“Moccasin” is an anglicization of the Ojibwe word “makizinan.”) One of the brand’s hallmark products is also the Thunderbird moccasin, which was originally released in 1955, featuring “the mythical thunderbird, a Native American symbol of power and strength,” according to the website.

Minnetonka “Thunderbird” moccasin.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

Benjamin said she was hesitant to join at first.

“There’s so much of the appropriation [in fashion] and what follows are empty apologies. Especially in the indigenous community, a lot of people have anger and there’s distrust in organizations for this reason,” Benjamin said. “For me, it was the most important that the acknowledgment was there and that there was a real commitment moving forward. The main factor in why I chose to work with Minnetonka was because I feel like the Millers have genuine hearts and care and the understanding is there.”

Under Benjamin’s guidance, Minnetonka is taking a number of steps to make amends, which include financial reparations to different Native American organizations, schools, nonprofits and tribal entities through long-term investments. To start, the company will be donating $25,000 to the Urban Indigenous Legacy Initiative in honor of Indigenous People’s Day.

Whether it’s through funding a beading class or language class, or having indigenous youth come to Minnetonka to learn marketing and business tools, the goal is to have long-term impact outside of a single monetary drop, said Benjamin.

“If we are talking reparations, to repair or repay, we [should] use that brand leverage that Minnetonka has. Shine light on native artists and do those things to repair those relationships with the people who have been very marginalized and capitalistically taken advantage of,” she added.

Minnetonka will provide more opportunities to local Indigenous artists, which include redesigning the Thunderbird, for instance, or dropping it altogether. Benjamin will also be working with the brand to launch her own limited-edition hat this winter.

“Regarding product, our current focus is to work with Native designers to shine a light on their art and compensate them fairly. We have changed the logo to remove the last signs of appropriation. Back in 1965, we were inspired by the straight lines created by a hand-carved wood working tool. Today, we have kept those letters but removed the Native American-inspired symbols we have appropriated,” said Minnetonka president Jori Miller-Sherer. “This has been a humbling and inspiring journey. We are so awed by and grateful to all of the people we’ve met from the Native American community who have taken the time to have deep conversations and shown us patience and honesty.”

Minnetonka is not the only fashion brand that has appropriated Native culture. Throughout the years, many companies, including Urban Outfitters and Ralph Lauren, have used Native-inspired designs for its product, for profit, without any direction from Native American artists.

Brian Patrick Green, the director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said it is significant when offending companies publicly admit wrongdoing and take the lead when it comes to financial reparations.

“This has to be solved at the federal level, but the fact that there is a for-profit company using their own money to try and make things better is setting an expectation — which is that this is possible and that this is ultimately the right thing to do,” Green said.

On the topic of reparations following years of systemic racism, the issue is complicated. But Benjamin said she sees a shift in consciousness.

“This is not something that we can continue to ignore. People are starting to wake up.”

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