The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me. I reckon they must be a few good ones, but most of ‘em ain’t good — leastwise they don’t treat me good. And Lawd knows, I ain’t never done nothin’ to ‘em, nothin’ a-tall.
- Langston Hughes (Berry)
Corporations all over the United States use "Indian" names, and companies have logos and trademarks with "Indian" themes. From the blue-eyed woman in "Indian Princess" garb on the door of the trucks of the "Navajo" trucking company to the "Indian princess" depicted on the Land 'O Lakes butter packages, stereotypical images of Native Americans are everywhere.
Many corporations add insult to injury by not only appropriating Native images and traditions, but scrambling them in the process. Tuscarora Yarns, for example, has chosen to represent itself with a logo that is a stereotypical image of a Native American in a Northern Plains Indian eagle feather headdress, often misnamed a "war bonnet." My grandfather --a full blood Cherokee and Tuscarora -- was born and raised in North Carolina, the traditional homeland of both these Native peoples. Knowing this, I educated myself about everything I could that related to both nations. Anyone else who took the trouble to do so would know that Tuscarora people did not wear this type of regalia.
- H. Mathew Barkhausen III (Seventh Native American Generation (SNAG) magazine)
The image of a seemingly warm, generous, and racially feminized offering of butter has been emanating from Land O'Lakes products for over eighty years now. I'm embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid, I felt attracted to her.
My current embarrassment about that boyhood attraction arises in part from my adult understanding that this buttery "Indian maiden" is just one example of the white supremacy that permeates American life and culture, embedding itself into the most seemingly innocent practices and products. It's also part of a long, disgusting, and ongoing tradition of such advertising imagery, both here and in Europe.
The company that makes this butter, along with other dairy products, is now called Land O'Lakes, Inc., and it's been functioning with "Land O'Lakes" in its name since 1926. The "now-famous Indian maiden," as their web site continues to identify her, adorns all of their products.
Like the hoary fantasies of "Indians" and "Pilgrims" sharing with quiet reverence the first "thanksgiving," the Land O'Lakes butter maiden helps white Americans sidestep and repress the horrific realities of what has been done to Native Americans. It also invites continued white oblivion to contemporary Native American misery, by offering instead a warm, fuzzy image, an image that is also oddly sexist, in that it's both sexually alluring and warmly maternal.
"Commodity racism," a useful term here, was coined by Anne McClintock in her book Imperial Leather. McClintock charts the movement of racism during the Victorian era from the realms of science to those of manufacturing, particularly in advertising. The result was early ads like this one (below), which shows, as McClintock describes, "an admiral decked in pure imperial white, washing his hands in his cabin as his steamship crosses the threshold into the realm of empire."
Or this one (below), which speaks for itself in terms of which race embodied connotations of cleanliness and purity:
Unlike Land O'Lakes butter, Pears Soap (which is still made by the British Company that first sold it in in 1789, a date that makes it the oldest brand-name in existence) is now sold in less objectionable ways. Their website offers an interactive photo album that allows you to flip through examples of their previous advertisements; it's no surprise that the many racist, empire-boosting ads have been scrubbed, as it were, from the record.
As an American product, the obstinately old-fashioned Land O'Lakes butter maiden is part of a distinct tradition of commodity racism in the grocery store, a tradition that mostly consists of images that I'd rather leave in the dustbin of history than reproduce here. Still, a few are worth showing, by way of contextualizing not only the butter maiden, but also other racist images that still end up in today's grocery carts.
Such ads play up prevalent stereotypes as we can see in this bizarre conjunction of text and imagery for an oddly named brand of sweet potatoes:
Many other images of African Americans depicted them eating stereotypical foods, and sporting completely (and inaccurately) black skin and grotesquely exaggerated features. The latter are echoed in this magazine article for American Apparel:
But back to the particular kind of image that we still see in the butter maiden, that of iconic individuals who helped to sell food. There's Aunt Jemima, whose image still sells syrup, and who looked like this in 1899:
Like the butter maiden, Aunt Jemima has yet to be retired, though she has been "updated"; today she looks like this:
If we can afford to buy more food than the bare necessities to survive in terms of nutrition--if we're in a position to pick and choose--then we're also buying, and "consuming," the connotative aura that's added to the foods by the images placed on them. These images have much more to do with why we buy products than we often realize, and their effects in reinforcing racist ideas are also stronger than we often realize.
For me, the solution is simple--we should boycott these kinds of foods, and all such commodity racism should be eliminated.