Tradition Or Honor: Should The Blackhawks Crest Go?
For the past month, Journeyman Sports has sat silent. This was for two reasons. The first was that talking about sports in a world on fire, where actual sports are largely absent felt disrespectful. Disrespectful to the people taking their voices to the streets, disrespectful to the healthcare workers trying to educate the public, and in a perverse way, disrespectful to the people who needed to hear their messages without distractions.
The second reason was that I personally needed to listen and learn. All modesty aside, I’m pretty good at speaking, be it through my voice or my keyboard. It wasn’t my turn to talk. It was my turn to listen, and I’m not good at listening. I wanted to be able to use my privilege and my modest electronic soapbox to help with… something. Anything. So, I put everything on pause. I began to listen, to look at my own prejudices, to try to find my own blind spots. During this time, quite a few people reached out to me asking what I was working on. There were plenty of possible items on the docket.
I could have spoken about the NFL’s shameless retconning of the blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick, but did that really come as news to anyone? Roger Goodell would eat his children to hold ratings steady.
I could have spoken about the systemic racism towards Black players that hockey refuses to contend with, but Evander Kane, P.K. Subban and Akim Aliu were doing a superb job on their own. The same goes for NBA players like Damian Lillard who were joining marchers in the streets demanding justice.
I could have spoken about the massive outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter from the international sporting community. Dozens of players from countries all over the world showed their solidarity. But the images of those players spoke volumes, they didn’t need my polishing.
A few days ago I found myself on Facebook (mistake) reading the comments on the Chicago Blackhawks’ Pride Month posting (big mistake) which was posted on June 24th, more than halfway through Pride Month. I was in a foul mood that day, scrolling through comments, looking for the right homophobic comment to fume over, when I found a comment not regarding Pride at all. It said the following:
“I like this logo better than your racist one. Please change it so I can support my team again. Thank you, concerned citizen.”
The comment was next to a photo of a black hawk, designed smartly, using the same color pallet and general outline as the Blackhawks’ Indian Head crest. It’s a sharp look, and one that was actually sold to an Ottawa AAA hockey team by First Nations artist Mike Ivall years ago.
My first reaction was to scoff. I didn’t agree with the comment so I scrolled down to see what the responses to the man were. He was being pummeled by Hawks fans for his opinion. The completely reasonable post was being met with (very real) responses such as:
“Then don’t go to the games if you feel that way, you’re ridiculous,”
“If you can’t handle, pick a better country, or get over and move on, that’s the one thing you have a problem with.”
“…before you start worrying about a hockey team logo, you may want to address the wholesale killing of blacks in your neighborhoods… Give it a rest, most people see through your BS.”
The complete contempt being shown and the language being used had me shaking with anger. But my anger towards the (you guessed it) mostly white responders was not the only thing bubbling up. I sat and thought for a long time after reading the post. I read it a few times. The man’s sentiment was stirring some discomfort in myself. Could I be agreeing with him?
It has taken me a long time to get to this stage. As a teenager, I was proudly chanting “Save The Chief” during Illinois games as the university contemplated retiring Chief Illiniwek. I snapped up a University of North Dakota hockey jersey just before the NCAA imposed sanctions on the “Fighting Sioux” which ultimately led to a name and logo change of their own. I love the Chicago Blackhawks. I love the look of their crest. I own hats, shirts, jerseys, and sweaters all proudly sporting the Indian head. But is that enough to defend it?
The logo which represents nearly 100 years of sporting tradition, can to some, also represent 600 years of suffering. So I want to take this opportunity to take a closer look at why some people take issue with the Chicago Blackhawks crest as well as some of the common arguments against replacing Native logos and nicknames in the hopes that this can bring a new perspective for both those for and against retiring their use. Some of my personal history will bleed into this analysis because as with all symbols, perspective is skewed by experience.
We should tackle my personal experiences with the team first.
I was a latecomer to the Blackhawks, truly becoming a fan in 2009, which looking back on it, wow, what excellent timing. For the people that lived through the Bill Wirtz years, it is more than fair to scoff and accuse me of being a bandwagon fan. In my defense, my favorite hockey team moved, as did my new favorite team, oh and my hometown team moved, and by the time I decided to stop fighting my family and root for their team, my second hometown team had a foot out the door. This is all to say, I may not have put a lifetime of passion into my Blackhawks fandom, but I can certainly understand the pain of watching something you love change into something that feels like it is no longer yours.
The thing is though, it isn’t yours. It is for everyone. The memories you make with something, while important, are not that thing. You might have loved lawn darts as a kid, but the kid whose friends turned their head into a bullseye probably had a different opinion. This sentiment leads us to the first common rebuttal often heard whenever anyone floats changing the Blackhawks’ crest or native imagery in general.
"BUT THE TRADITION/HERITAGE"
If you spend your whole life identifying with a symbol and then suddenly other people tell you that symbol is offensive, it is understandable how the initial reaction to that news might be anger. It feels like something that makes you “you” is suddenly being challenged—being devalued. This symbol has a long tradition, it has been something to rally behind for years, bringing people together with a common identity. For all intents and purposes, this thing is part of your community.
You might be asking yourself, ‘are we still talking about sports?’ and you would be forgiven for getting a little lost because this line of thought is currently playing out on the news almost every night. It could very well be about the Confederate flag or Confederate monuments. Perspective is skewed by experience.
It is necessary for people to acknowledge that traditions for some invoke pain for others. For most of us, it is easy to imagine how seeing a Confederate flag would make someone feel fear or anger. To those of us who support monuments and flags being taken down in the South, the Confederate flag stands for slavery, oppression, and treason.
Imagine if there was a pro team, say a football team that used this iconography. It was everywhere, on their uniforms, their field, all over their social media, publications, and outreach. Imagine how that could make some people feel. You don’t have to imagine it, because, in a sense, it plays out in Washington D.C. each fall.
"IT’S NOT AS BAD AS"
Washington’s NFL team uses a racial slur for a nickname. If someone argues otherwise, they are either personally connected to the team or being racist. Those two camps are not mutually exclusive. For those defending the name on behalf of heritage and tradition, the nickname was adopted in 1933, and although stories have been floated that it was chosen to honor native players on the squad or the team’s coach, those simply don’t check out. While still in Boston, the team was named the Braves. Boston (Football) Braves Owner George Marshall told the AP at the time of the change that it was made to avoid crossover with the local baseball team of the same name. And William Dietz, the coach who called himself a member of the Sioux, the man for whom the Snyder family has insisted the team was honoring, was likely lying about his heritage.
Linguistically, the term “Red Skin” first appeared from translations of Native proclamations from as far back as the 18th century. The term was used by both colonists and locals to represent the people who had called the continent home for thousands of years. By the mid-1800s the use of the word had shifted, becoming more pejorative and often tied to bounties or calls to violence. Years after the football team moved to Washington, pop culture was still ripe with examples of the word being used to dehumanize Native Americans in radio programs and film. Even the most egregious lyrics from the team’s fight song weren’t revised until the 1960s. We can establish a 100-year window with the namesake of the team being a derogatory term. That is a chunk of history that is hard to dismiss in the name of tradition.
Inevitably a defender of Washington will try to pass the buck along, usually to Cleveland, and their mascot, Chief Wahoo. If you have seen Major League (a movie I love, but is problematic in so many ways) you know the logo. The image of a cartoon Native with a bright red face, large nose, and gigantic smile had been, until recently, the logo of the ball club since the 1940s. Chief Wahoo is a blatantly racist caricature, something akin to the depiction of Japanese people during WWII or the depiction of Blacks from slavery through Jim Crow. While the ball club’s name, the Indians, may be less controversial in public opinion than Washington’s name, Cleveland’s representation of Native Peoples has been just as obscene. Behind these two teams stand the rest of the professional and college teams using Native representation, including the Blackhawks.
Be it the Braves in Atlanta, (or Cobb County, a racist story for another time), the Chiefs in Kansas City, or the Blackhawks in Chicago, fanbases are quick to point out their teams aren’t as bad as either Washington or Cleveland. But ask yourself this, do you want to hinge your argument (and your identity) on not being the most racist?
All of the teams listed above have levels of controversy surrounding them. The Braves recently had a spat with Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, who called their Tomahawk Chop disrespectful during their recent playoff series. Atlanta did refrain from playing the problematic music that prompts fans to do the chop during the series, but their official hashtag on Twitter is still #ChopOn, so it appears the team didn’t really take Helsley’s words to heart.
Most of the franchises who still sport Native symbols have caught on to the fact that the pot they find themselves in is beginning to boil. To combat growing discomfort, these organizations have begun to reach out to Native communities, which brings us to the last defense commonly used...
"LOOK WHAT THEY DO FOR THE COMMUNITY"
Of all the defenses given for the validity of Native logos and nicknames, this might be the most widely accepted. If teams want their arguments about tradition to be taken seriously, investing in Native culture is a great way to make up for lost time. Nearly all the teams which still use these symbols have community outreach programs geared toward the Native American community.
The Kansas City Chiefs have made a point to showcase Native traditions and people at games played during Native American Heritage Month, for example. Native tribes from several states are invited to Arrowhead Stadium to showcase their culture during games. The olive branch, however, is undercut by the team’s insistence on allowing “The Chop” to be continued at games attended by drunk people in costume headdresses.
Attempts like Kansas City's to reconcile do garner a level of goodwill, both with the general public and with some Native Americans. Even Washington has set up outreach programs, but yet again, the legitimacy of the team’s motives can be questioned.
In 2016, as the team battled for the copyright to its logo in a federal court, Washington gave 3.6 million dollars of charitable contributions to 20 Native American tribes across the country. However, in 2017 the Supreme Court reviewed the legality of banning disparaging trademarks, ruling in favor of allowing copyrights similar to the one Washington gained. That same year, the team halved their donations.
On the flip side of this cynical outreach is Florida State University. You would be hard-pressed to find an organization with a better relationship with a Native tribe. The school has spent the better part of a century working with the Seminole community, first by dropping “Chief Wahoo”-style caricature mascots and the misappropriation of items like headdresses, and more recently by opening avenues for educating fans and students to Seminole culture, as well as scholarship funds for tribe members.
In 2005, the Seminole Nation even went as far as to put their support of the partnership into writing, fully legitimizing the continued use of their nation’s identity by Florida State.
Though the larger Oklahoma Seminole Nation has long objected to the use of Native culture by the school, having a local group join into a real, two-sided partnership with the University has proved invaluable. The Florida Seminole Nation has input in all aspects of the University’s use of their heritage, from the regalia worn by the Homecoming court to the elective class detailing the history of the tribe. FSU has become the gold standard by which to judge the growth of organizations profiting from Native representation. Their acknowledgment of Seminole history and willingness to listen have successfully staved off larger criticism.
Where do the Blackhawks sit in all of this? How does the organization stand on the merits of their own actions, and is it enough to defend the continued use of the Indian Head? Well, it’s complicated.
When looking at the team through the lens of “tradition”, it is a mixed bag. Frederic McLaughlin moved the Portland Rosebuds to Chicago in 1926 and renamed them the Black Hawks. Many fans assume this name comes from the Sauk leader who defended Native lands in western Illinois and Iowa from settlers in the 19th century. This is vaguely true.
McLaughlin named the team for the 86th Army Infantry division that he served with during World War One. The 86th division was mostly Midwestern soldiers when it was created, and the unit was named by these men for the Sauk warrior Black Hawk. For the first sixty years of their history, the team was known as the Chicago Black Hawks. Chicago deleted the space between Black Hawks in 1986, streamlining the name, but also cutting linguistic ties with both the army unit and Sauk leader the team drew from for identity.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the Blackhawks genuinely represent a real, locally known Native American, though the tradition has largely been retconned to draw less on the primary inspiration for the team’s namesake, the U.S. Army.
During the time McLaughlin served, the 86th infantry used a literal black hawk and a shield, surrounded by red as their insignia. The Black Hawks (team) decided to use these colors, but not to use the unit’s symbol. Instead, the team used the profile view of a Native American. Like many logos featuring Native people, the Blackhawks logo was at first caricature-like before slowly turning into the more realistic crest we would recognize today.
Again, to be clear, the team is named for an army unit that, in turn, named themselves for the Native American warrior the team now uses as their symbol. This tweaking of history is made easier by the crest the team has sported since its inception. Depending on who you ask in the Native community, you get different answers as to the respectfulness of the current crest.
Some Native Americans find the crest to still have stereotypical qualities, like face paint and feathers. Some also see the disembodied head as a disturbing image, a symbol of Natives that were often disfigured after death because of their lineage. Others see the crest as a respectful depiction and one that keeps Native Americans literally visible in an American culture that often omits them completely.
But what has the team done for the Native community? Historically, not much. For decades, the team had zero contact with Native tribes or organizations. This changed, as so many things did, when Rocky Wirtz took over the team after the death of his father. As the Blackhawks were beginning their dynastic run, the franchise created a relationship with the American Indian Center of Chicago. The AIC is the largest Native Community Center in America, representing tens of thousands of Native Americans with ties to dozens of tribes who live in the Chicagoland area.
From this relationship, a genuine dialogue seemed to spring forth, as more Native representation appeared at home games, and the team’s charitable foundation pivoted to work with Native groups like the AIC. Native American veterans began appearing on ice for the National Anthem, often wearing traditional dress. Music and dance groups were invited to the United Center not only to perform but to interact with fans in the concourse.
This relationship proved to be short lived. By 2015, the AIC and the Blackhawks were no longer partners, a move made official in 2016 when the American Indian Center stated flatly that it does not “affiliate with organizations that perpetuate harmful stereotypes through the use of ‘Indian’ mascots.” As of 2020, this relationship has not been repaired, nor does it appear it will be anytime in the near future. The reason Florida State will likely be the Seminoles for the foreseeable future is directly linked to having the explicit support of a Native organization. Losing an ally like the AIC does cast some doubt on the sustainability of the Blackhawks’ use of their crest.
Black Hawk himself obviously isn't around to approve the use of the image. The descendants of his people, the Sauk (or Sac) are represented by three nations, none of which have given specific approval for the use of his likeness. The Blackhawks have a page on their website dedicated to Black Hawk and his larger legacy. Currently, their only public partnership with a Native group is with Trickster Cultural Center, in suburban Schaumburg.
That being said, with the Indians only retiring Chief Wahoo in 2019 and the team in Washington showing no signs of changing either their slur of a nickname or their Blackhawks-like logo, the argument of “It’s not as bad as,” might insulate the team from further national scrutiny for the near future.
What makes something racist is a moving line of demarcation that gets updated as our society progresses. A safe rule of thumb is this. If an item or word holds symbolic pain for a group of people, was used at any time to dehumanize and oppress a group, or was a historic symbol of that oppression, then it could very well be viewed as racist. Time plays a key role in telling us when something has become untenable. Simply put, you should know it when you see it. Far too often, people don't. Myself included.
So where does all of this leave us? For now, that depends entirely on you.
Is the Blackhawks logo inherently racist? Let me ask you a question. Do you think that if Colonel McLaughlin had been awarded his expansion bid in 2016 alongside Vegas, the team would use Native iconography?
I highly doubt it. The representation portrayed by the Blackhawks is from another era, one where people weren’t concerned with Native Americans because the country had largely succeeded in wiping them out. And for me, that legacy is the strongest reason to call for change.
America is currently having to wrestle with the sins committed in our past. While we struggle with our treatment of the Black community, the centuries-long systematic genocides of Native Americans also need to be truly acknowledged by all. Decade after decade, human beings were forced into relocation camps, refused rights of citizenry. Their children were removed from loving communities in attempts to completely erase Native culture. Any attempt at resistance was met with horrific violence. We did this. It happened. There is still blood on our hands. Our history with the Native population is unconscionable.
I grew up on “The Chop” in Atlanta. I wore Illini face paint in high school. I’ve worn an Indian head on my chest to most Blackhawks games. I’ve been the person arguing for the preservation of "tradition". I’ve been the person crying foul when another says they find some form of Native imagery offensive. And this wasn’t years ago, either. But perception is skewed by experience.
A couple of miles away from the United Center, on the shores of Lake Michigan stands the Field Museum. It is one of my favorite places on Earth. Housed within the neoclassical walls is a permanent exhibit named Ancient Americas. This exhibit takes guests from the original colonization of the Americas thousands of years ago all the way through history to the present. The vibrancy of the people represented by the exhibit is truly incredible. And the whole time you walk through, you know what’s coming. You know the thing the people who crafted the goods you look at and created the cities you learn about didn’t.
Towards the end of the exhibit, you turn a corner and enter a dark room with an illuminated pillar in the center. Inscribed on the pillar are the following words:
"In 1492, the first European explorers arrived in the Americas, triggering a devastating loss of life almost inconceivable to us today.
Millions of Indigenous peoples— with an extraordinary diversity of languages, religious and political systems— were wiped out during decades of disease, warfare & enslavement.
Survivors and their descendants struggled on through centuries of oppression and pain.
Here we reflect on the magnitude of loss inflicted on America’s Indigenous peoples by European invasion."
Anyone willing to use the likeness of a group that has gone through the pain and suffering Native Americans have for something as frivolous as a hockey team… words like those better be hung in the rafters and recited before each game. If a sincere honoring of Native Americans is too much to ask then it is time for the appropriation to end, including in Chicago.