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Opinion: the Blackhawks’ name has got to go

The NHL team resists a logo change for Indigenous education — and it’s not enough
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

In my first team hockey photo, I’m nine years old and happily wearing a jersey emblazoned with the Chicago Blackhawks logo. Looking back at that picture now, I can’t help but think, “Um, is this okay? Shouldn’t I, like, burn this photograph?”

Well, according to the Hawks, I shouldn’t lose any sleep over the ethics of my childhood team’s jerseys. On July 7 — amidst rising controversy surrounding professional sports monikers such as that of the Washington Football Team, whose name used to include an Indigenous slur, and Cleveland Indians — the Blackhawks stated that neither their name nor logo will be subject to change.

Since this announcement, both the Washington Football Team and Indians publicly shared plans to shed their offensive titles, though the Cleveland-based Major League Baseball (MLB) team may not be officially rid of its tasteless trademark until 2022.

So, where does this leave the Blackhawks? As the only professional sports team in North America displaying an Indigenous logo to opt out of updating their crest after recent backlash, they have some explaining to do.

After all, looking at the Washington Football Team and Indians’ forsaken logos side by side with the Blackhawks’ logo, I can’t help but think it would be a trying task to differentiate the latter: all three feature an Indigenous man, supposedly a chief, sporting a traditional headdress.

The most immediate distinguishing feature setting apart the Chicago logo is the war paint depicted on the Blackhawks’ emblem. Traditionally used to coat its wearer in a shield of protective prayers before battle, war paint is still used today for specific Indigenous ceremonies, such as Sun Dance and Naming Ceremonies.

Considering the deep historical and cultural significance of Indigenous war paint, its presence in the design doesn’t help the Blackhawks’ case. So, really, what is the difference between the emblem of the Blackhawks compared to those of the former Washington Football Team and Indians?

Chief Black Hawk, an anti-colonial symbol

The reasoning given by the hockey association is that, unlike the MLB and NFL symbols that depict unspecified and stereotyped Indigenous men, the Blackhawks logo honours a particular person: Chief Black Hawk.

Born in 1767 in Saukenuk, a Sauk community of present-day Iowa, Chief Black Hawk was a remarkable advocate for Indigenous sovereignty. Perhaps most notably, he led Indigenous groups such as the Sauk and Fox peoples in opposition to the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis.

This treaty surrendered 50 million acres of tribally owned territory to the United States government, which proclaimed the land had been lawfully acquired via an Indigenous representative. But, for good reason, Chief Black Hawk didn’t buy it.

Sensing foul play, the chief and his people reoccupied the sought-after territory near Rock River, Illinois, resulting in the 1832 Black Hawk War: a brutal affair in which between 450–600 Indigenous people were killed, and most of the occupied land was lost.

Chief Black Hawk’s relentless fight for Indigeneity through events like the Black Hawk War inspired the Blackhawks to name their association after him — but does the name truly fit? An ally with the British during the War of 1812, Chief Black Hawk’s priority was keeping Indigenous land out of the American government’s clutches. To me, this alliance breeds skepticism that the US NHL team would have adopted Chief Black Hawk as a logo had they truly known and admired his historical impact.

And yet, the statement released by the Blackhawks on July 7 proclaimed that they “celebrate Black Hawk’s legacy.” Brenda Wastasecoot, an Indigenous Studies professor at the University of Toronto, spoke to The Varsity about this conundrum. As far as she is concerned, professional sports team logos displaying Indigenous peoples are hardly a celebration —  they’re “a sign of conquest.”

Tokenized iconography and the “Dead Indian”

Wastasecoot argues that these crests utilize symbols of Indigenous heritage and pride for something they simply “shouldn’t be used for”: marketing and commodifying Indigeneity. Due to usages of this nature, “native peoples were erased in so many ways,” particularly with “a whole cycle of shaming.”

It is in our current social climate — one in which Indigenous peoples may be hesitant to express their culture for fear of backlash — that Chicago Blackhawks athletes wear symbols of Indigenous heritage.

These very symbols are ones that Indigenous peoples themselves have fought so hard to preserve. In Wastasecoot’s words, with regard to elements of Indigenous life, “It really has to come back to where it comes from — the people; that’s where it belongs.”

Of course, it is possible that the Hawks were fully cognizant of the chief’s importance when selecting him as a symbol. But if that is the case, the Blackhawks have a whole lot of Indigenous activism to do if an Indigenous warrior in a headdress will remain their logo. Wastasecoot explained that the Indigenous headdress is indicative of “a leader that is highly respected” and who “has won the confidence of many over a lifetime.”

She also said, “[The headdress is] something that you receive from others, not something that you create for yourself.” Given the nature of receiving a headdress — also known as a war bonnet — the Blackhawks’ self-appointed decision to emblazon jerseys, helmets, and gear bags with innumerable depictions of headdresses should be subject to scrutiny.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that [comes] with it,” Wastasecoot said on the topic of wearing a war bonnet. I have to wonder whether any weight was given to this responsibility when Chief Black Hawk was selected as the NHL team’s logo.

Perhaps, even more so than rendering Indigenous traditions a commodity, logos like the Blackhawks’ additionally erase Indigenous peoples of the present. “They don’t recognize us as we exist today, but they love the romanticized version of what we were,”  Wastasecoot said.

As it stands, she’s not the first person to express this frustration. Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, coined the term “Dead Indians” in echoing the same thoughts as Wastasecoot. He explained that a Dead Indian isn’t simply dead. Rather, “They are the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears.”

The North American psyche has become so convinced by the concept of the Dead Indian, argued King, that “North America no longer sees Indians.” In place of these peoples, we see “war bonnets, beaded shirts, [and] fringed deerskin dresses.”

What King’s work ultimately points out is that logos such as that of the Blackhawks — which depict an antiquated and traditional kind of Indigeneity — make it impossible for white people to acknowledge Indigenous folk as members of the modern day world. Instead, it relegates them to being a thing of the past.

This accusation could not have been made any more clear to me when King includes the Chicago Blackhawks in a list of organizations that have participated in turning “the Dead Indian… into products.”

The first steps toward progress?

It does seem, though, that the Chicago-based hockey team may be willing to engage in the practice of informing Blackhawks fans of their trademark’s history. Their statement on July 7 additionally proclaimed a commitment “to raising the bar even higher to expand awareness of Black Hawk and the important contributions of all Native American people.”

In an attempt to rid Chicago’s United Centre of cultural appropriation, the Blackhawks have banned fans from sporting Indigenous headdresses during home games. These efforts are a fine start, but they’re also riddled with some glaring issues. In the NHL’s 104 years of existence, only about 80 NHL uniforms have been clad by Indigenous players, the New York Times calculated. That’s about one per cent of the 7,623 athletes who have ever participated in the league. 

As a lover of hockey myself, I hope the Blackhawks don’t fall short on their commitment. Edmonton Oiler Ethan Bear’s decision to sport a jersey emblazoned with his name in Cree syllabics, as well as Matt Dumba’s pregame anti-racism speech, are hopeful indicators that hockey may be ready for the Hawks’ promise.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that this NHL team has just put its big Bauer-clad feet right in their mouth. If the Blackhawks are really serious when it comes to education about the Indigenous peoples who have been pushed to the side of hockey, they’ll take the time to uplift all groups that may find themselves facing oppression in an arena — and that’s a lot of people.

Only time will tell, but until I’m proven otherwise, the Chicago Blackhawks’ promise echoes only of stagnancy and a dash of foolhardiness.