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East side venue’s name change decision follows months of quiet pressure

The Winnebago’s owners have said they will change the name, a derogatory term for the Ho-Chunk people.

Shortly after a new music venue and restaurant opened on the east side in February, at least one Madison resident contacted the business directly to challenge its choice of a name: The Winnebago. Said Madison resident is of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), Métis, and Onyota’a:ka (Oneida) heritage, and asked Tone Madison to use their Anishinaabe name, nibiiwakamigkwe. In an exchange of messages with venue co-owner and booker John DeHaven over the course of the spring, nibiiwakamigkwe provided a detailed history of the erasure and cultural appropriation white people in the Madison area have practiced at the expense of Indigenous people. Examples included white-owned businesses selling “native” jewelry, developers bulldozing untold numbers of the area’s once plentiful burial mounds, and the dodgy origins of the mythical Lake Mendota monster, “Bozho.” They explained to DeHaven that “Winnebago” is an anglicized version of an Algonquin term that translates to “people of the filthy water,” and is a derogatory name for the Ho-Chunk people, on whose stolen ancestral lands Madison sits. 

Along with that, nibiiwakamigkwe suggested several practices the venue could adopt to make it more welcoming to people of color and other marginalized people, including hiring a diversity coordinator and offering reparations in various forms. DeHaven responded in April by saying that he was uncomfortable with the name “but was overruled,” and defended the diversity of the venue’s staff and programming. He also asked for access to tribal elders “to talk about the most appropriate way to move forward.” In the six months since, the venue has kept its name, which it shares with the street it’s on, Wisconsin’s largest non-Great lake, a county in Wisconsin, and a brand of RVs. (Full disclosure: Tone Madison hosted an event at the venue earlier this fall, the opening night of the inaugural Infamous Local Fest.)

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“The venue had been receiving a bit of press in January and February, and the name was surprising, nibiiwakamigkwe told Tone Madison. “I realize they utilized the street name, but it seemed especially callous to use an Anishinaabe exonym for the Ho Chunk people on land where the Ho Chunk had been displaced. That’s when I sent off those first few messages.”

The venue announced on Monday night that it would find a new name by January 1, 2020. ” We have been intentional in our booking, hiring, and buying practices in an effort to satisfy this intention,” John DeHaven and his brother and co-owner, Jake DeHaven, wrote in part of their statement. “Regretfully, we didn’t put the same thought into naming our establishment.”

The final straw seems to have been Madison queer-punk band Dumpster Dick publicly demanding a name change, but the venue’s staff and co-owners have privately expressed misgivings for as long as the place has been open. “The day to day overtook any talk of a name change,” John DeHaven admits. The venue has not announced specifics about how it might offer reparations to Indigenous people, but the DeHaven brothers did acknowledge that the initial choice of a name was harmful: “We would like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to The Ho-Chunk Nation, The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, and indigenous populations as a whole for our participation in the continuing appropriation of their cultures and names. This announcement is only the start of the action steps we’ll be taking to make this right,” they wrote in the statement.

The problems with the name have been clear to The venue’s owners since before it even opened. “As soon as the name was suggested we did a Google search and realized the issues with it. After consulting many people from many backgrounds we felt confident that in naming the cafe after the street we were not participating in appropriation,” John DeHaven says. “Obviously that isn’t the case and we are working now to right our wrong.”

It’s especially troubling for a venue that presents itself as a progressive, inclusive space. The venue has signs up that assert the right of transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice, hosted a fundraiser for a transgender staff member’s top surgery, and recently became a vendor for Madison Metro bus passes. It has hosted a number of queer-centric events, and its music lineup and hiring so far have been pretty inclusive, though just about every venue in Madison has a ways to go on that score. 

The initial lack of action from the venue, after nibiiwakamigkwe sent over an extensively researched historical primer, also frustrated them, as did John DeHaven’s request for access to tribal elders. “Our Elders, knowledge-keepers, are so valuable, and to loan them out to people who have chosen a name that harms us is disrespectful to them,” nibiiwakamigkwe says. 

Hopefully, the DeHavens’ next steps will be a course correction for what has so far been a vital new independent space for music.

Dumpster Dick apologized last week on Facebook for playing a recent show at the venue, explaining: “Our own white privilege and ignorance factored into why we played this venue but now that we know the heritage of this word and the impact it has on the indigenous people who’s land we are on we pledge to do better. Furthermore we will no longer play this venue until they have changed their name, issued a public apology/recognition of the impact of appropriation, and pledge to pay regular reparations to the Ho-Chunk people.” The post also acknowledged that all of Dumpster Dick’s members are white, as are the venue’s owners. 

The band’s vocalist, Christine Elaine, told me this was posted after Indigenous people brought the issue to the band’s attention. The band declined to comment further, saying they wanted to center Indigenous voices in the conversation rather than their own. 

Jake DeHaven, who co-founded the venue but has been less directly involved recently, told me last week that “The name has been a mistake from the get-go. We wanted to keep it simple and refer to the what-where of the building and started with Winnebago Arts Cafe and somewhere along the road that was too wordy, so it compressed down to Winnebago. I couldn’t be more embarrassed about the harm that we have caused by the name, it is humbling to recognize my own personal ignorance that is a product of my privilege.”

The comments on Dumpster Dick’s Facebook post last week included expressions of genuine curiosity from people who hadn’t known about the history of the term “Winnebago,” appreciated learning about it, and wanted to learn ways to better engage with Indigenous people and even provide reparations. The thread also included its share of—well, you’ve read comments on the internet. At times it has largely devolved into arguments among white people, but nibiiwakamigkwe defends how the band addressed the issue.

“Ultimately, not performing or attending the venue until a name change and reparations occur is the best option, and Dumpster Dick’s response is exactly what allied action looks like,” nibiiwakamigkwe says.

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Madison musician Sylvia Johnson (Gender Confetti, Midas Bison, DJ Hitachii), who has worked at the venue and booked shows and DJ nights there, pledged to donate half of their earnings from their Astral Jams dance night to the Ho-Chunk Nation. Johnson has cut ties with the venue for now: “I quit outright and don’t intend to book there until they change their name to something not appropriative, issue a formal apology, and begin paying a percentage of their profits in reparations directly to the Ho-Chunk nation,” they say. Johnson also says that nibiiwakamigkwe’s messages to the venue’s Facebook account were not discussed with the staff beyond management. 

“Conversations about the name were not had with the staff at any meetings I attended,” Johnson says. “I brought it up early on during the soft open, I was told there were too many other things to focus on to get the place up and running, and it was not discussed further. I know now that [nibiiwakamigkwe’s] message was sent during that time period. the head chef at the time, as well as sous chef, both expressed distaste and desire to change the name.”

John DeHaven says he’s already seeking guidance from the coffee the venue serves, Kickapoo Coffee. The Viroqua-based roaster announced in April that it would choose a new name by early 2020, because it was an “act of appropriation” for a company with no real connection to the Kickapoo people to use their name, as Daily Coffee News reported. On its website, Kickapoo Coffee also says it has “set aside $25,000 to support projects and programs that directly support the Kickapoo Nation and combat cultural assumptions that led to our appropriation.” 

For now, the DeHavens are still trying to decide on a new name and other steps toward re-branding. “There have been a number of ideas floated, mostly centered around our current oak leaf logo and the Norwegian ship sculpture on the front of the building,” John DeHaven says. (The building was previously home to the Sons of Norway lodge.) 

The conversations between nibiiwakamigkwe and John DeHaven also illustrate how people of color are often burdened with educating white people. “There has been a long-standing expectation that we will educate others for free, at great time and emotional expense to ourselves,” nibiiwakamigkwe says. “That is exploitation and neo-colonialism.” They recommend that white people seeking to understand Indigenous issues go first to online resources like Native Appropriations, ndn.o, lilnativeboy, and @dearnonnatives, and they add: “If you want to slide into their DMs with a question, be sure to drop them some gas money through their Patreons or PayPals.” 

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