The discussion about the Blackhawks and Native Americans isn’t over
The question is not whether the Hawks think they’re honoring Native Americans. The question is whether Native Americans think they’re being honored.
Is there a difference between the team name ‘‘Redskins,’’ which trades in ugly racial stereotypes, and ‘‘Blackhawks,’’ which purports to honor the Native American warrior Black Hawk? I would say there is, but when I look in a mirror and see the pasty visage looking back at me, I know I’m not the right person to answer that question.
Several years ago, I vowed never to use the name of Washington’s NFL team in print when discussing football, and, except for one instance of brain freeze, I haven’t. If Native Americans are insulted by the name — and many are — that’s the only criterion that should matter. End of story.
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But I never have been as forceful with regard to the team in my backyard with the Native American name. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Chicago area and was raised on a diet of Blackhawks, Bears, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox. You didn’t look for deeper meaning in the names when you said them, just as you didn’t look for deeper meaning in everyday terms such as ‘‘fork,’’ ‘‘bike’’ or ‘‘baseball cards.’’
As the years went on, however, that convenient out began to nag at me. Should I attach the same disdain to the name ‘‘Blackhawks’’ that I do to the name ‘‘Redskins’’? Or are there degrees of insensitivity? Lesser sins? Can ‘‘Blackhawks,’’ as the team presents the name and the image, be anything other than inherently disrespectful?
Surely, the Hawks’ logo is more considerate of Native Americans than the Indians’ cartoonish, now-defunct Chief Wahoo was. The Hawks’ logo shows a dignified man, though he looks nothing like what Black Hawk looks like in paintings of him from his era. Regardless, both images risk playing into the stereotype of the bloodthirsty savage who will, if you’re not looking, relieve you of your scalp. The next team logo of a Native American harvesting corn will be the first.
But the important question is whether it’s possible to ‘‘honor’’ with a logo a group of people we consistently have pushed aside, the Trail of Tears being one of the biggest push-asides in American history.
Under pressure for their depictions of Native Americans, the Redskins and Indians recently said they are contemplating changing their names. It raised a question in Chicago that, depending on your outlook, was asked either in fear or anger: What about the Hawks? On Tuesday, the team released a statement announcing it would not change its name and vowing to continue to honor a warrior’s legacy.
The franchise is named indirectly after Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe in the 1700s and 1800s. Frederic McLaughlin, the Hawks’ first owner, was a commander of a World War I Army unit named after the war chief. Since then, the Hawks have insisted their name and logo honor American Indians.
But, again, the question is not whether the Hawks think they’re honoring Native Americans. The question is whether Native Americans think they’re being honored.
A poll in February showed about two-thirds of Native Americans who take part in tribal and culture practices are offended by names, mascots, dances, gestures and chants used by sports teams. The poll, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, surveyed 1,000 Native Americans.
Poll results on the topic have varied through the years, and the discussion often has devolved into disagreements about survey methodology.
Is the ambiguity in the polls an answer or an easy way out for sports teams?
Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois’ former mascot, was deemed respectful by generations of white people. Native Americans eventually opened enough eyes to make the school drop the dancing, feathered exaggeration of an Indian. The Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, descendants of the Illini Confederation, called the Chief ‘‘a degrading racial stereotype that reflects negatively on all American Indian people.’’ We’ll see how long the school’s nickname, the Fighting Illini, can last.
Several years ago, the Hawks started bringing Native Americans onto the ice to be honored before games. Some saw it as a nice gesture. Others saw it as a shield and pre-emptive strike against any criticism that might come their way.
Working to lift up a population that has been abused or neglected for centuries would honor Native Americans more than having sports teams named after them.
Does my opinion on the Hawks’ name matter? Do I deserve a vote on its fate? Do you if you’re not Native American? Do the Hawks as an organization deserve one?
The answer is no to all of the above. So far, that answer doesn’t matter. So far.