"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pemmican Brand Beef Jerky: Part II

In early July, I wrote a post about a strange TV encounter:

A Tale of Pemmican, an Indian, and the World Cup

I saw a billboard for "PEMMICAN" at the World Cup in South Africa which prominently featured a stereotypical Native American image.  I soon discovered it was a brand of beef jerky marketed in the US.



Michael G. Farley, marketing manager at Marfood USA Inc. the American producer of Pemmican Brand Beef Jerky, wrote a response in the comments section of that post.  He also sent me a photo of the billboard I saw at the World Cup:

Click to make big!
(Image courtesy Marfood USA)


Here is his response to my original post in full:

Stephen,

First, thank you for noticing Pemmican at the World Cup. Indeed, it would have been a surprise to most. As you noted, Pemmican is owned by Marfrig Group Brazil, as are the Seara and Moy Park Brands which could also be seen in World Cup matches.

As a part of the FIFA World Cup sponsorship, the Marfood USA division of Marfrig Group was given the opportunity to include the Pemmican Brand logo in the three United States matches. The intent was not to make Pemmican an international brand or market Beef Jerky globally under Seara. It was an opportunity created by our Corporate World Cup sponsorship.

Marfood USA is an American company located just outside Detroit Michigan. To have Pemmican, our only brand in the US, on the world stage alongside much larger brands inside our company - and even larger ones outside, was important to everyone here at Marfood USA. We are a newly established company striving to play a more important role within Marfrig Group and the Beef Jerky category in the US.

Here is the important part:

The Native American association with Pemmican is an area we approach with careful thought and respect. If perceived as “drawing on Indians,” then we have failed.

The Pemmican Brand is over 40 years old and has strong meaning among core beef jerky users. It also happens to be the name of the Native American food source made popular by the Métis which eventually inspired the product we know today as Beef Jerky.

The Native American on the packaging is, and always has been, an important part of the brand. More importantly, it’s an important part of what the brand stands for. Pemmican Beef Jerky users are outdoorsmen. They hunt and fish and camp. They respect the outdoors, the freedom, and the tranquility it brings.

As you said, today’s beef jerky is different than original pemmican. The Tanka bar is a good product and with dried berries, closer to an original recipe. However, the tradition and continuing “the journey started by Native Americans” reference is not about the food - it’s about the great outdoors. It’s about the serenity of casting from the banks of the Au Sable, the workout of hiking the Cabin Creek Trail through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the family together around a warming campfire under an uncountable number of stars.

We understand that Beef Jerky is like any other product; it’s produced for an audience and marketed. But we also believe there’s a significant disconnect between how Beef Jerky is marketed today and the heritage of where it all began: as a sustainable food source for those who respect, appreciate and spend time in the great outdoors. We’re simply trying to make our Beef Jerky the best choice for those who still understand that significance.

Thank you for the time to express our thoughts, and more importantly, thank you for the opportunity.

Michael G. Farley
Marfood USA I Marfrig Group


Comments:

First, it was never my intention for the phrase "drawing on Indians" to be inherently negative as Michael Farley seems to imply.  The blog title actually has double meaning.  It refers to first the cultural trend of drawing upon Indians, that is adopting items from Native culture or Native Americans themselves.  Second, "drawing on Indians" refers to changing or manipulating the original source material (as when an artist draws over an image) so that the items better serve their new purposes.

It is perfectly reasonable and acceptable that someone who is inspired by another culture draws upon that culture in any number of ways whether it's fashion, music, art, religion, language, or even food.  Most of the contentious issues occur with the second definition when individuals begin to change or manipulate Native elements to fit their own needs.  Too often, people see this new variation on the cultural element but falsely attach it to the original Native people or culture.

Second, Michael Farley notes the connection between beef jerky and the Native food pemmican.  Michael admits that the two foods are different but goes on to claim that Marfood USA is still "continuing the journey started by Native Americans."  How?  His answer- "it's about the great outdoors."

He writes that the Native American on the packaging is "an important part of what the brand stands for" that is the great outdoors.  His logic goes that "Pemmican Beef Jerky users are outdoorsmen" and will therefore be attracted by those other great outdoorsmen, Native Americans.  While I know many Native people who love the great outdoors, none of them look like this:




This is where I still find some fault with the product logo and the logic behind it.  If they wanted to represent the great outdoors on their packaging why not use a mountain range, a forest scene, a fishing pole?

Instead, the marketers chose one of the most potent images in American culture that denotes the outdoors- the Indian.  In choosing a classical plains Indian with war bonnet (as opposed to other Native cultures) they acknowledged the cultural power of the stereotypical "Indian" in American culture, of what a simple image means for so many people.

It is typical of the marketers to forgo the more logical connection to the Métis or the native people of the Andes (from whom we get the name jerky) in favor of this more salient image. The American public would never recognize a cartoon Métis person or Native South American.  I don't even know how you would draw that!  The point is neither of these two groups carry as powerful a meaning as the classic image of the plains Indian.

Third, why bother?  Aren't there more important battles to fight?  Aren't there more egregious examples of native appropriation in our culture?

Yes and yes.  But to quote Adrienne Keene from the Native Appropriations blog:

"I still think it is important to interrogate and re-examine images we take at face value, and problematize how seemingly simple and benign words can carry much deeper meaning."

The Native American on the Pemmican package is pretty mundane and not inherently negative.  What interests me is the deeper meaning that resonates in this simple image and what that means for our present society.

There are certainly worse stereotypes for Native Americans than the outdoorsy Indian stuck out on the 19th century plains in his war bonnet.  Nevertheless, every small example in our culture continues to affect the way we all relate to this group of Americans.

To sum up the message from the package and the letter:

'Pemmican Brand Beef Jerky is a simple traditional outdoorsy food, just like Native Americans are simple traditional outdoorsy people.'

If this at least makes you pause and think, I've done my job.


Links:

For a great overview of the "Plains chief" stereotype check out The "honor" of a Plains chief.  For a compelling Native account of running into these stereotypes check out Accosted by racist costumes.

ALSO: Find me on facebook!!!: search for "Drawing on Indians"

3 comments:

  1. The indian on the Pemmican package goes back for decades at a time when it was popular to depict indians on corporate brands, and when no one was thinking about "political correctness".

    The reason for continuing the use of the indian logo is because it's a powerful brand that outdoorsmen already recognize. To change it to something else would force Marfood to spend countless millions building that brand recognition back up.

    And coming from someone who spends a lot of time writing about beef jerky, I can tell you that Pemmican Beef Jerky is some of the most awful jerky there is, and it could never win over consumers on substance alone. People only buy it because they recognize the indian.

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  2. Your probably talking about the old formula that ConAgra was using. That taste was horrible. I absolutely love the new style produced by Marfood USA. Specially the Hot and Spicy. You can't find anything hotter in Beef Jerky then that. It truly lives up to its name.

    Continue on the tradition and heritage Pemmican is back!

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  3. Are you looking for homemade beef jerky sale? Check out organic beef jerky from Crockett Creek. We offer the best beef jerky at wholesale prices.

    ReplyDelete