Who Owns a Name?

Last week The Cap Times ran an interesting story titled ‘We Are A People.’ It’s multifaceted to say the least and I was surprised it didn’t evoke more conversation.

The story talks about Kickapoo Coffee, a fair trade, organic roaster from southwestern Wisconsin. But first, let’s explore a bit of geography for those unfamiliar with this part of our state. Kickapoo is the name of a 126-mile river winding through a unique bioregion known as the Driftless Area. Both the river and the region are beloved, like really beloved, by those who live there and those who visit (myself included). Naturally every other business and its offshoot has incorporated Kickapoo into its name. And why not? Why not celebrate the land where your business has its roots, right?

Except Kickapoo is also a group of people. They’re a sovereign Indian nation who once lived in this area—before they were forcibly removed, that is— and the Kickapoo River was, in fact, named after them. This brings us the question of who owns a name.

And the subject of Kickapoo Coffee.

Last year Kickapoo Coffee decided the Kickapoo name was not theirs to take and they announced they were rebranding the business. “The decision to use their name, and to continue to roast under it, was an act of appropriation,” said co-owners TJ Semanchin and Caleb Nicholes. “In an effort to right that wrong, we have decided to change our name.”

How Should One Feel?

White privileged woman that I am, it’s hard to know what to think about this. I’m ashamed that throughout history those of European descent have mistreated indigenous people everywhere. I feel it’s unconscionable that it continues today. Really, who do we think we are?

Yet, I grew up singing, “I’m from Owosso, down where the Shiawassee flows.” My hometown is named after Chief Wasso of the Ojibwe tribe (also known as Shiawassee and Wan-dor-gon-ing Indians). It’s beside the Shiawassee River, in Shiawassee County, which is named from an Ojibwe word meaning “sparkling waters.” It’s within the state of Michigan, also named from an Ojibwe word meaning “large water.” Being born and raised in Owosso, can I claim a regional pride the same way Kickapoogians do in Wisconsin? At what point does a heritage become one’s own?

Choosing a business name can be hard. Changing a business name is even harder (think mega-expensive and time consuming). Yes, there are the usual considerations like descriptiveness, emotional connection, and domain availability. Add cultural awareness to that list and it definitely becomes a lot to think about.

“Indigenous rights is a really interesting aspect of intellectual property law. It impacts copyright, trademark, and patent law,” said attorney Erin Ogden in her comment to the story.

Your Thoughts?

Some have called Kickapoo Coffee’s rebrand a PR ploy. Others say they’re conceding to a trendy need to absolve ourselves of the guilt our white forefathers laid upon us. Still others applaud Kickapoo Coffee for showing cultural sensitivity and respect to others.

As I said, this is multifaceted. What do you think?

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