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Minnetonka redesigns iconic Thunderbird moccasin with Native American designer

By Jackie Mallon


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Minnetonka Thunderbird Credits: Minnetonka.com

On the eve of NYFW, heritage brand Minnetonka presented the biggest relaunch event in their 78-year history, unveiling the redesign of their iconic moccasin originally launched in 1953, the Thunderbird. Now renamed the ‘Animikii’ which means “Thunderbird” in Ojibwemowin, its beadwork was designed by Red Lake Nation Anishinaabeg citizen and designer Lucie Skjefte who also owns the copyright of the shoe. Skjefte, a graphic artist known for working in bright colors with details that reflect her community, is determined to continue the incorporation of more Native American terms into the fashion vernacular, saying in a statement:“If we can pronounce Louis Vuitton or Givenchy, why can’t we learn to pronounce Animikii?” 

Skjefte began working with the brand in 2021 when Minnetonka’s reconciliation efforts really kicked into action. The brand had released a statement on its website in 2020 acknowledging and apologizing for appropriation, and after a series of internal conversations began to speak to the press about their plans. Minnetonka’s headquarters are in Minneapolis which became the focus of international attention as the location of George Floyd’s murder, and a 2021 story about the brand’s efforts to atone for its past in the local paper, the Star Tribune, was picked up by over 70 publications. A logo redesign to remove culturally appropriated symbols was revealed at this time, and the website statement which has been updated in 2023 reads, “We deeply and meaningfully apologize for having benefited from selling Native-inspired designs without directly honoring Native culture or communities.”

Designer Lucie Skjefte and son Animikii Credits: Minnetonka.com

Confronting the history of cultural appropriation at Minnetonka

Minnetonka was founded in 1946 with the traditional Native American footwear known as the moccasin just a part of the brand’s assortment. But it quickly became the most popular style. The word “moccasin” is an anglicization of the Ojibwe word “makizinan." FashionUnited asked Jori Miller Sherer, President of Minnetonka and fourth generation employee who has been with the company for over 13 years, why it took so long to get to this place.

“The first real step that we took was in 2019 when we reached out to the person who became our first Native American advisor,” said Sherer. “But in the years leading up to that, we had a lot of internal hard conversations and we were really fearful. We knew we needed to do something, but we didn’t know what to do and were stuck in that fear for a while.” Sherer is grateful that the brand did not have its hand forced, obliged to react to a viral campaign or boycott, something many other brands were experiencing at the time. “We were able to listen and learn and get to know people in the community and have deeper understanding before we had to talk about it publicly.”

One of those conversations involved Adrienne Benjamin, Reconciliation Advisor to Minnetonka, an artist and community activist who is Anishinaabe and a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Benjamin was present at last week’s relaunch event, where guests were invited to have their moccasins monogrammed and enjoy Indigenous-inspired hors d’oeuvres by Chef Dave Smoke-McCluskey, founder of Corn Mafia. Other attendees included Iakowi:he'ne' Oakes, NAIC-NY; and Eileen Briggs, Grantmaking Director at the Bush Foundation.

The redesign of the classic Animikii incorporates the winged thunderbird motif on the front rendered in small round beads in colors black, white and red. Said Skjefte, whose son is named Animikii, of her redesign, “The thunderbird represents the storms and the rains which purify Mother Earth, so I channeled the cultural significance of the thunderbird and pulled in a lot of research into the stories and teachings and became visually inspired to create something that was empowering for our people.”

The redesign marks the next extension of ongoing efforts to empower and spotlight Native artists in Minnetonka’s Native American reconciliation commitment, specifically those within the local indigenous Minnesota population, in order to repair relations and build a path forward with lifetime royalties and free rein on design. 

“Before there wasn’t enough of an understanding, but as we learned as a society, it’s amazing that we’re having the conversations,” Sherer told FashionUnited. “I can’t speak to decades ago, only that there wasn’t enough understanding.”

Jori Miller Sherer, Minnetonka President (Left), Adrienne Benjamin, Reconciliation Advisor (Center), David Miller, Minnetonka CEO (Right) Credits: Minnetonka

Minnetonka is still a family owned business. Sherer’s father is CEO and her grandfather still works in the company. But she stressed that this was not a case of the old guard delaying progress. “My father, David Miller, has been absolutely on this journey with me which I give him a lot of credit for. He’s been generous and open to listen. It’s really special.”

While this is the brand's most high profile launch yet there have been other projects with the Native American community, and there are more planned. The entire range is under review, and some styles will be redesigned like the Thunderbird, others will be dropped, and new styles created by the collaborating artists will be inserted. “For us this is a forever thing, not a check-the-box-and-pat-ourselves-on-the-back kind of thing,” said Sherer. “We’re excited to work with artists and shine a light on their craft, their activism, their language. It’s been really rewarding.”

Minnetonka joins brands such as Ralph Lauren whose inaugural Artist in Residence program collaboration with Naiomi Glasses honoring the artist’s Navajo heritage attempts to redress the wrongs of the past. The Thunderbird redesign hopefully represents another nail in the coffin of cultural appropriation within the fashion industry and brands profiting from and exploiting Native American-inspired design.

Cultural Appropriation
Native Americans