Not Yours to Use

After an outcry from the community, east side venue The Winnebago has agreed to change their name. Nibiiwakamigkwe helps us understand the problems with non-indigenous owners profiting by using native names for their businesses.

Aaniin, boozhoo niindinawemaganidog. Hello, my relatives! My Anishinaabe name is nibiiwakamigkwe, which means watery ground or wet earth woman. I am an Anishinaabe (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, marten clan), Onyota’a:ka (Oneida Nation of New York, bear clan), and Métis (Red River Settlement) Two-Spirit and uninvited guest of 7 years here in Tee Jop, on HoCaak Land. Dr. Sami Schalk has created space here for me to talk about the intersection of queer and Indigenous issues. Ambe! (Let’s go!)

On February 25, 2019, I read about a new music venue opening on the near east side. As an artist and consumer of art, I wanted to be happy, but couldn’t get past the name. Winnebago??? Do they know? It’s an easy enough fix, I thought. They aren’t even fully open yet. The same day I sent off a quick Facebook message on the venue’s page.

What followed was an extended exchange with whom I later learned was John DeHaven, co-owner. He asked to learn more. I further explained the colonial implications behind using the name. He asked to talk with my Elders about a name change. I stopped responding. Our Elders are sacred to us, and we don’t rent them out to people. I gave up replying: I had explained, in detail, and he still didn’t want to take action to change the name. Months passed. While artists I adore and queer friends found a fantastic, seemingly inclusive space, I was never able to bring myself to go. Their name alone meant the space could not include me or other Indigenous folks. Representation matters, and how we define ourselves and who defines us have lasting impacts on our history and sovereignty. I am connected with three separate Indigenous nations, and when I google them, the primary searches are: a Louis Vuitton handbag (Métis), an upstate New York cult that decided to make flatware (Oneida), and an immediate redirect to a Lakota/Dakota exonym (Anishinaabe to Ojibwe). These kinds of cultural dissonance—who we are versus what society associates with us—are incredibly problematic and especially damaging to Native youth and those that are vulnerable. I couldn’t support this kind of disrespect to the Ho Chunk that I had experienced so heavily.

In October 2019, after the success of GenderFest and strong community support, one of my non-Native friends rhetorically asked if anyone would ask The Winnebago to change its name. It was a completely real question to me, and I finally shared those transcripts from months ago. People saw, people shared, and many of Madison’s queer folks and artists agreed a name change was necessary and a boycott was needed to back the effort. Within a week of the band announcements and media questions, the venue announced that it would no longer be known as The Winnebago. Most patrons have been supportive, many have been confused, and some have been downright racist, citing the venue’s other diversity work as an excuse for cultural appropriation. But there has been a desire, and most certainly a need, to know more. What follows are three of the most common questions from these events.

I’ve heard that Winnebago is a slur, so why is there a Winnebago tribe in Nebraska?

Winnebago is an exonym/xenonym, a name given to a group of people by people who are not a part of the named group, in this case my own people, the Anishinaabeg. Win-, comes from wiinad, meaning it is dirty, -neba- comes from nibiig, meaning waters, and -go is an emphatic word or a descriptor. So basically, it translates to “Dirty Waters, UGH!” (Winnipeg, Manitoba has the same etymological roots). Exonyms are often made to belittle, which is why they were used and later nearly permanently solidified by white settlers as a way to further colonize and degrade Native nations. Ojibwe/Chippewa, Eskimo, and Winnebago are all common exonyms, and Native nations have begun to shift back to our demonyms and names for ourselves as we have been able. Anishinaabe, Inuit, and Ho Chunk are all better descriptors than stuttering or puckered people, raw fish eaters, and people of the filthy water, but some nations have decided to keep the exonyms for historical, legal, and personal reasons. Such choices are incredibly significant to our communities and are insular to our own nations: non-Natives should always use a people’s demonym unless told otherwise. I am from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, but I identify as Anishinaabe. Ho Chunk in Nebraska (where they were forcefully relocated) must still scroll past pages and pages on recreational vehicles whenever they look up their own nation, Winnebago.

But the venue is on Winnebago Street, and they just based the name on it. How is that wrong? Shouldn’t the street name change too?  

This question has come up a LOT. Often it’s queried as a way to defer blame from the venue owners, but they have even stated they realized the name was an issue early on and still used it. Also, Winnebago Street colloquially sounds a lot different from The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, often shortened to The Winnebago. The venue completely overlaps with this name, which is why it is more egregious than a street name. It is erasure. While it is odd that street names are often derived from what they destroyed or displaced (trees, flowers, wildlife, Indigenous nations), streets never gain enough popularity to replace their namesakes. Martin Luther King Jr. will always be more important than MLK Boulevard. Streets do not develop their own websites or social media accounts that pull attention away and ultimately profit from their originators. Unfortunately, the east side venue already has these, and so is pulling attention and mental capacity away from the Ho Chunk/Winnebago. If I search “Winnebago” on any social media platform, I see their venue first instead of the people and organizations who carry the name they stole. This is Ho Chunk land, their ancestral territory, and they deserve the right to their own names.

You can still have street names based on Indigenous words! Odana Road is taken from the Anishinaabe word oodena, which means town. I’m happy to see my language here in Madison, especially when the name makes sense with its owner. Town Road? Yup, that describes it pretty well. Using our languages appropriately and in collaboration with us is totally acceptable. As for the east side street name, I cringe a little bit whenever I say it because I understand its history, and I know what the Ho Chunk prefer to be called. But the existence of Winnebago Street does not allow for businesses to use and capitalize off “Winnebago” itself.

Ok, they changed the name, aren’t you happy?

I’m glad the owners have decided to no longer profit from the identities of Indigenous peoples. But it took them nine months after my initial contact, and coincidentally around the time that multiple predominantly-white bands (miigwech Dumpster Dick and Sylvia), producers, and patrons decided to no longer attend the venue with its original name. The name change is in response to their anger and the potential loss of white people’s money rather than misrepresentation of and education from Indigenous peoples. Once again, white folks’ emotions, labor, and intentions carry more weight than ours. This is why allyship and accountability are so important, but holding these prejudices is not something that is easily forgivable of the owners. So I’m glad the name is going, but I’m not happy the institutions that allowed it to be stolen in the first place remain.

For over 500 years, Indigenous Peoples have not controlled our narratives and representations. Our exclusion has been built into inclusion for others. The foundation of any equality work cannot be oppression. Let’s do better.

Miigwech bizindawiyeg!

(Thanks for listening!)


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