Lessons Learned: Minnetonka’s Ongoing Reparations Work
Jori Miller Sherer (left to right), Adrienne Benjamin, David Miller photographs courtesy of Minnetonka

Lessons Learned: Minnetonka’s Ongoing Reparations Work

How does a company built on appropriating Native culture repair generations of damage? The owners of Minnetonka share their reparations work, and announce their first moccasin collaboration with a Native artist.

David Miller was 10 years old when he first became aware of the uncomfortable truth about Minnetonka, the 76-year-old moccasin company his grandfather built. “I remember working at the Minnesota State Fair and having members of the American Indian Movement all over our booth at the Grandstand.” The company added a “Not Indian Made” sticker on their products’ soles. 

Miller joined the Minneapolis-based business full time in 1980. “We tried to move as far away from language and imagery I knew wasn’t right, and that’s how we handled it for decades. But the internet really heightened awareness.” 

Miller found a way forward with the help of his daughter, Jori Miller Sherer, now company president. They initiated meetings with Native American advisors in 2019, and went public with that work as tensions over cultural appropriation were heightened after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. On Indigenous People’s Day in October 2021, Minnetonka made headlines by apologizing for its history and promised to do more to support Native communities.

Ziigwan Waabigwan Mocs by Lucie Skjefte for Minnetonka

Now, one year later, on Oct. 10, Indigenous People’s Day 2022, Minnetonka is set to release its first collection of Indigenous-designed beaded moccasins, a collaboration with Red Lake Nation Anishinaabe designer Lucie Skjefte. The Ziigwan Waabigwan mocs, featuring hand-beaded floral designs and whipstitched toes, retail from $62.95 and are now available online. For every pair purchased, a product lifetime royalty will be paid to Skjefte for her original design. In honor of the collaboration, Minnetonka also announced a donation to an organization chosen by Skjefte: MIGIZI is a Native American non-profit that serves Native youth. 

The collaboration, and Minnetonka’s ongoing reparations work, is the result of a partnered with artist and reconciliation advisor Adrienne Benjamin, a Minnesotan, Anishinaabe, and a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “Before agreeing to work with them, I wanted to make sure they understood the depths of what their company has done,” Benjamin says. “I wanted it to be deeper than an apology.” (Hear more of Benjamin’s perspective and reparations advice on Ep. 96 of By All Means podcast.)

Benjamin has since collaborated with Minnetonka on two beaded hat collections. Efforts to hire Native workers and give back to the community are ongoing.  “We’re talking about hundreds of years of oppression—we’re not going to fix this in my lifetime,” Miller Sherer says. “But we’re thinking about how we can show up better.” 

“We will never move on from this work. This will always be part of what we do.”

—Jori Miller Sherer, president, Minnetonka

Minnetonka Moccasin Catalog

Here’s their advice for companies that face similar situations:

Develop relationships. 

“Whatever you’re facing, connect with people privately,” Miller Sherer says. “You have to have personal relationships.” Benjamin recalls her first meeting with the Millers: “They said, ‘We’re here to listen.’ I felt valued.”

Lead with acknowledgement. 

The Millers wanted to launch a Native product collaboration. Benjamin encouraged them to start by owning their mistakes;
she and other Native artists didn’t want to work with Minnetonka until that happened. “Acknowledgement is so important. It’s the step before any healing can begin.” 

Get uncomfortable. 

“We’re walking into meetings that are not all touchy-feely and warm,” Miller says. “But once [people] see our hearts are in the right place, they tend to warm up.”

Be realistic. 

Separating Native appropriation from Minnetonka’s core legacy product is impossible. “None of our Native American advisors are pressuring us to get rid of everything with Native influence,” Miller says. “If we did that, we’d go out of business, and then we couldn’t support Native artists and find new ways to work together.” 

Be patient. 

“We want results, we want multiple collaborations,” Miller says. “It doesn’t happen as fast as we want, and there’s a reason for that. You don’t turn something like this around overnight.” 

Read more from this issue

A version of this article will appear in the October/November print issue of Twin Cities Business.

Listen: Adrienne Benjamin shares her path into reconciliation work and how she is advising other companies on Ep. 96 of By All Means podcast.