Renowned footwear maker Minnetonka came clean on Indigenous Peoples Day Monday, admitting it had never been Native-owned, just Native-inspired, and apologizing for 75 years of cultural appropriation.
“Minnetonka is not a Native-owned business,” CEO David Miller wrote in a statement Monday. “When we started in 1946, Minnetonka was one of many companies who sold handcrafted moccasins and Native-inspired accessories to roadside gift shops.”
The family-run company, founded nearly 75 years ago, has been asked two questions over the years, he said: whether Minnetonka is Native-owned, and whether it supports Indigenous causes.
“We recognize that our original products, some of which are still sold today, have been appropriated from Native American culture,” Miller wrote. “Not just the products have been appropriated; we have also come to learn that even the word ‘moccasin’ is an anglicization of the Ojibwe word ‘makizinan.’ "
After first publicly acknowledging the appropriation in summer last year — a move he said was “long overdue” — the company has been taking steps to rectify the situation.
“We deeply and meaningfully apologize for having benefited from selling Native-inspired designs without directly honoring Native culture or communities,” Miller wrote. “While Minnetonka has evolved beyond our original product set, moccasins remain a core part of our brand, and in 2020 we began to step up our commitment to the culture to which we owe so much. We are dedicated to honoring our commitment to Native American communities with our actions going forward.”
He noted the company’s years-long track record of privately supporting Native causes in Minnesota, where the firm is based, but added that “simply giving back is not enough” and vowing to take “a more active and public stance in supporting Native communities.”
They have hired Native American advisers and made one of them, Adrienne Benjamin, the company’s reconciliation adviser. The Anishinaabe artist and community activist, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, “has been an integral part of Minnetonka’s commitment planning,” Miller wrote.
Benjamin said she agreed reluctantly to take the position, having been introduced to Miller and his partner by an elder of her tribe. But she added that she was struck by their honesty and willingness to learn.
“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,” Benjamin wrote in her own blog post on the site.
“With Minnetonka, they were having these conversations for a long time,” Wayne Ducheneaux, executive director of the St. Paul-based Native Governance Center and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “They are acknowledging that kernel of truth that what their company has done is cultural appropriation, and they are moving forward with actions.”
Not everyone was convinced. A bit of skepticism and we-will-see sentiment was expressed on Twitter.
Miller outlined a five-step plan for making reparations with the state’s Indigenous Peoples that include diversifying the employee base as well as the businesses they contract with, updating language to weed out culturally appropriated references, collaborating with local Native artists on designs, and upping their philanthropy for Native organizations.
“We will continue to move forward in a manner that acknowledges and honors the Native American culture, design, and people who have influenced our brand and business,” Miller concluded. “This journey will remain important to our company forever.”