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Minnesota based moccasin company apologizes for profiting off Native American culture

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Minnesota-based company Minnetonka started selling moccasins and other Native-inspired gear in 1946. But recently, the company has recognized that it has done little to honor or compensate Native Americans directly. And last week on Indigenous Peoples' Day, it unveiled a plan to change that. Part of that promise includes bringing in a reconciliation adviser, Anishinaabe artist and activist Adrienne M. Benjamin. And she joins us now from California. Welcome.

ADRIENNE BENJAMIN: (Non-English language spoken). Morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How were you initially approached by Minnetonka about taking on this role?

BENJAMIN: So I actually was approached through an elder in the Minneapolis community who I had done some previous work with. Her and I had had some bright conversations about, you know, social justice and our feelings around that. And so she kind of knew where I had stood on some issues. And it was initially brought to me that - just as it was kind of a veiled company that has been appropriating for a lot of years and wants to do better. So I agreed to the meeting. And, you know, right away, I think I've seen their honesty. They were willing to admit and realize that they didn't know everything and that they were really very willing to listen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did they tell you had inspired this? What was the moment where they thought they had to do something?

BENJAMIN: So Jori Miller Sherer, who is the president of Minnetonka and is the daughter of David Miller, who is the CEO, is younger and understands the movements that are happening, you know, across the country, worldwide. And they both have expressed that they had felt this way for a really long time and that they just honestly had fear about moving forward with things and that they just didn't know how that would come across. They wanted things to be done in a way that was respectful and the most meaningful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. As Minnetonka has admitted, they have been profiting off of Indigenous culture for decades. I mean, how do these companies address the moral harm they've caused?

BENJAMIN: You know, I think that's a big question. And I think it's important to spotlight, work with, pay artists, Indigenous artists, for, you know, design work. Part of our plan with Minnetonka moving forward is to spotlight Indigenous artists specifically from Minnesota, the area where the company is located, to do better. I think one of the things that I think over one of the conversations that we had when it came to Minnetonka was the thought about that I - that's something that I could relate to them, which was my great-grandparents sold crafts on the side of the road near this trading post. And I was explaining, and I'm like, you know, I'm sure that there were people who also sold moccasins. And it's like, here comes this truck backing up of, you know, these Minnetonka moccasins that just took that economy right out from underneath a reservation area. And so it's things like that that I think people don't necessarily think about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adrienne, I want to acknowledge something, which is this must be an incredible emotional burden as well to have to do this.

BENJAMIN: It is, you know, and thank you for saying that. I think that's incredibly meaningful. Yeah, that was part of the hesitation with doing this work. I think the other part of it, too, is that it's so hard, as one Indigenous person from one specific tribe, you know, to walk into something like this knowing that it's hurt so many more people, right? Like - and that's a common thought that people get wrong, too, is that, you know, we're just Native American people. There's one Native American group in the United States, when there's, you know, over 500 specific tribes that all have different belief systems, all have different cultural knowledge, all of that. How do I - you know, I can't envelope everyone to say what they would say, maybe, but I can do what's in my heart that I think is, you know, the best thing moving forward that will benefit the most people and help Minnetonka do better - you know, to be better allies and to move forward in better ways towards Indigenous people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I want to thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Anishinaabe artist and activist Adrienne Benjamin, now a reconciliation advisor with the Minnetonka Company. Appreciate your time.

BENJAMIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.