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When we talked about Native American stereotypes, my students asked about the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks organization claims it is honoring an Indigenous person, Black Hawk, a highly respected leader of Illinois’ Sac and Fox nation.Yet in 2019, the American Indian Center broke its ties with the team.

The Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 13, 2021. It’s time for the team to change its name, teacher Gina Caneva writes.
The Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 13, 2021. It’s time for the team to change its name, teacher Gina Caneva writes.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photos

A sexual assault scandal. A losing record. Declining attendance. It’s the perfect time for a name change, at least, for the Blackhawks.

For the past five years, in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Month in November, I have put up displays and held talks about books by Indigenous authors at my schools’ libraries, previously in Chicago and now in suburban Franklin Park at East Leyden High School. This year, I collaborated with teachers to deliver a lesson to students on the perspective of some Indigenous people regarding Thanksgiving, stereotypes such as “Indian Princesses” and sports teams that use Indigenous people as mascots.

Students worked in groups to view and read materials. They watched a short TeenVogue video in which teenage Indigenous girls spoke about Thanksgiving, a holiday that, from their perspective, ignores the deadly impact on Indigenous people because of European settlement in America. Then they listened to poet Rowie Shebala, whose poem brought to their attention the many items and teams that are named after Indigenous people yet do not honor them.

In nearly every class, when I introduced the Shebala poem by discussing the Washington Football Team’s previous name, the Redskins, and explained that the Cleveland Indians will drop that name after this year, several students asked,

“What about the Chicago Blackhawks?”

And what about the Chicago Blackhawks? Unlike the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins, they aren’t using racial slurs. When pressed, the Chicago Blackhawks organization claims it is honoring an Indigenous person, Black Hawk, a highly respected leader of Illinois’ Sac and Fox nation. They also claim that they have partnered with local area Indigenous groups, often make donations, and have provided space for education about Black Hawk.

Yet in 2019, the American Indian Center broke its ties with the Blackhawks. “Going forward, AIC will have no professional ties with the Blackhawks or any other organization that perpetuates harmful stereotypes,” the AIC stated. “We see this as necessary to sustain a safe, welcoming environment for members of our community, as well as protecting our cultural identity and traditions.’’

Who profits from the Blackhawk name?

I didn’t have a good answer for my students, except that the situation seems to be an exception, a bit of a gray area. I told them I had been to Blackhawks’ games and didn’t see a mascot mimicking an Indigenous person, or anyone in the stands with face paint on or doing a tomahawk chop or any other form of disrespect. The logo, however, was not representative of Indigenous people, and, I suspect, not representative of the actual Black Hawk.

Many students pressed me further as they listened to Shebala’s poem urging people to drive in their Jeep Grand Cherokees.

“Is she saying it’s bad to buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “Who makes money when someone buys a Jeep Grand Cherokee?”

“The car makers. Not the Cherokee,” they replied.

And when we think of the Jeep Cherokee, we envision a car, not the Indigenous people who still exist. The same goes for the Blackhawks. The millions of dollars made over the decades from the Black Hawk name did not go to the Illinois Sac and Fox nation or their descendants. The money went to the white owners of the team. And when we think of the Blackhawks, we think of the team, not the actual people who are still here.

It would be an easy switch to just change the name to the “Hawks,” as no team in the National Hockey League has the moniker. Many people call the team the Hawks now, and have for years. Plenty of real hawks fly around all parts of Illinois.

The Blackhawks organization is seeking to hold itself accountable for its mistakes in the sexual assault scandal. The organization should take another step by ridding itself of its name and logo.

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Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva