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Coffee Company Voluntarily Changing Its Name Over Cultural Appropriation Concerns

For 14 years, Wisconsin-based Kickapoo Coffee has sold award-winning fair trade and organic coffee—but now it's Kickapoo no more.

by Jelisa Castrodale
Apr 19 2019, 3:00pm

Photo: Getty Images

For the past 14 years, Kickapoo Coffee has sourced, served, and sold award-winning fair trade and organic coffee and, as a result, the brand has become increasingly familiar outside its home state of Wisconsin.

That’s a problem, the company’s co-owners say—and it’s why they’ve decided to change the company’s name.

As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, earlier this week, TJ Semanchin and Caleb Nicholes announced that they would stop using the Kickapoo name in early 2020, largely because they’re concerned that they’ve inadvertently appropriated it from the Kickapoo people. The pair said that when they launched the company, they borrowed the name from the nearby Kickapoo River Valley, just like a number of other local businesses, a township, and the school district had done.

“[A]s our company has grown to become a nationally recognized brand, leaving behind the little train depot that had been our roastery, we’ve come to a point of reckoning with our name,” they wrote in a statement last December. “Intended to pay homage to the place we call home and share a sense of regional pride, we were not conscious of the greater implications of its use. For while we were introduced to the Kickapoo as a river, the Kickapoo are a people.”

They’re right: The United States has three federally recognized Kickapoo tribes in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. (There is also a bi-national tribe, the Tribu Kickapu, who live in the US and in the Mexican border state of Coahuila). Neither Semanchin nor Nicholes have any connection to the Kickapoo Nation, which is partially why they began to feel inauthentic when they put that name on their bags of roasted coffee beans.

“By using ‘Kickapoo,’ we claimed a name that was never ours to take,” they explained on Wednesday. “The decision to use their name, and to continue to roast under it, was an act of appropriation. In an effort to right that wrong, we have decided to change our name. We have apologized directly to the Kickapoo Nation and have shared our decision to change our name with their leadership.” (MUNCHIES has reached out to Kickapoo Coffee for additional comment but has not yet received a response.)

Restaurants, cafes, or companies who have printed menus and signage with culturally inappropriate or insensitive names sadly aren’t unique (at all), but usually, they don’t post statements on social or Instagram an act of contrition until they’ve already been hit with several days’ worth of backlash.

There was, for instance, the South African food bros who thought it was a good idea to call their “Asian restaurant” Misohawni (pronounced “me so hohny”); the white Iowans who went with Me So Hungry for their hip hop-themed breakfast restaurant; and Arielle Haspel, the “mompreneur” who probably would’ve gotten more pushback for calling her American-Chinese joint Lucky Lee’s, if she wasn’t getting buried for her comments about how her food was “clean” and not “icky” like authentic Chinese.

Semanchin and Nicholes say that they were not asked to change the company’s name, nor are they facing any legal challenges over it. This move stands out in contrast to so many others (like, say, a certain NFL team) who might dig their heels in and insist that they didn’t mean any offense, so native peoples can’t, or shouldn’t, take issue with it.

They haven’t revealed what the coffee company’s new name will be, and have only said that it will be “honest, authentic, and respectful.” Hey everyone else, can we maybe get more of that?