Cheering for the Chicago Blackhawks: A Tradition of Racial Play

By Guest Contributor Charles Fruehling Springwood

Members of the Chicago Blackhawk celebrate winning the Stanley Cup in a June 28 parade. Image by tanveer.i.ali via Flickr creative commons.

As a white youth growing up playing ice hockey in the 1960s, in a Chicago suburb, I fell in love with the Chicago Blackhawks. I watched Hawks games on T.V., and during the intermissions between the periods, I retired to the kitchen (and its smooth, slick tile floor) to shoot my plastic puck at the cabinets. For the kitchen shootouts, I channeled my all-time favorite, the always-helmeted Stan Mikita, or on occasion, Bobby Hull. Born just after the team’s 1961 Stanley Cup championship, I anticipated – without too much patience – the next championship, and suffered through the team’s two failed Stanley Cup appearances in the early seventies.

But between those years and the team’s next championships in 2010 and now 2013, my Native American friends encouraged me to reflect more deeply on the way symbols like the team’s own “Chief Black Hawk” distorted their identities, particularly in the imaginations of white Americans. Ultimately, in graduate school at the University of Illinois-Champaign, I critiqued my school’s infamous mascot, Chief Illiniwek, and my friend Richard King and I went on to edit Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy, a 2001 collection of essays giving voice to how Native Americans feel about many of these manifestations of the power of non-Indian, mostly white institutions and people to (re)represent, (re)name, and (re)contextualize Native peoples for white purposes.

In his foreword for the book, renowned scholar Vine Deloria Jr. of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation wrote:

With diehard refusal to change the names and logos of sports teams we always hear the justification that the name is being used to ‘honor’ us. This tortured reasoning makes its proponents look absurd. Obviously if garish costumes, demeaning cheers, and crude logos are the essence of honor, then the various sports halls of fame need to perform drastic surgery on the busts and plaques of their honorees. The excuse, being lame, must conceal something more profound, which cannot or will not be articulated by those people ‘honoring’ us.

Maybe the most vivid contemporary example, the Washington R*dskins, is addressed by Suzan Shown Harjo of the Cheyenne and Holdulgee Muscogee tribes, the plaintiff in the case against the franchise. The plaintiffs’ legal strategy turns on U.S. trademark law and its prohibition against trademarking racial epitaphs, and as such, they seek merely to deny the Washington R*dskins team the right to own the trademark of own name and image. Harjo, writing in Team Spirits, acknowledges that the case may take a long while to play out in federal court, but she asserts:

Three things are certain at this time … The Native American position is rock solid and will not change. The circle of non-Native supporter is wider, stronger, and more diverse. The time has come to consign “Redskins” to the history books and museums.”

Increasingly uncomfortable rooting for a team relying on Native American imagery to popularize its identity, my passion for the team has now dimmed. Somewhat ambivalent still, I was jealous of the team’s many supporters reveling in and celebrating the 2010 championship. And as I share this with you, Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews have just led the Hawks yet again to a Stanley Cup championship. Persuaded by years of inquiry into the problematic history of how athletic teams have too often resorted to Native American imagery to convey their identities, I will let me many friends who are Blackhawk fans celebrate without me.

Florida State Seminoles mascot “Chief Osceola.”

The critique of Indian mascots and nicknames turns on a deep understanding the history of Native American ethnocide and genocide, which requires consideration of how relations between a white America and peoples of color have long been defined by uneven hierarchies and structures of domination. The mascots and nicknames have been criticized for their tendency to “flatten” understandings of Native Americans, reducing them to simplified stereotypes that usually portray Indians as bellicose (Florida State University’s “Chief Osceola”) or, in other instances, buffoonish (the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo).

Moreover, the narratives surrounding these representations of tribal figures extinguish from our memory the terror and displacement that so clearly marked the encounter between indigenous Americans and the colonists from Europe. But in defending the Blackhawks from charges of exploitation, many fans will ignore the team’s very history. Frederic McLaughlin, the team’s original owner, introduced the squad in 1926 as the Black Hawks (changed to the current “Blackhawks” in 1986), a name ostensibly inspired by his service in the 86th Infantry Division during World War I. The 86th had been named to honor Chief Black Hawk, the Native American leader of the Sauk nation who led members of the Sauk and Fox nations in battle against white colonists in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Blackhawk, critical of the treaties under which these tribes ceded their lands east of the Mississippi, led some 1,500 Native supporters back to Illinois in 1832 to express their resistance. Ultimately, many of them were killed, and in some cases, even scalped, and Black Hawk himself was captured. As a prisoner, he was brought to various eastern cities, where he was displayed for excited white Americans.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Indian logo tradition is context. This type of Native American sports iconography, clearly developed to serve a largely white population for a recreational purpose, despite virtually nothing to do with the experiences of Native Americans emerged almost precisely during the era in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when white America vigorously denied Indian peoples their rights to speak Native languages, to worship Native religions, and even, to participate in Native forms of dance and ritual.

As such, Indian mascots and logos represent the exercise of power, in so far as Native people were stripped of their many forms of expressive culture while at the same time, white people and their institutions appropriated and often distorted the symbols of “Indianness” to inspire athletes and spectators. In a sense, these images allowed white people to “play Indian.”

But in any case, it has always been easy for Blackhawks fans to relate to their team in terms of its entailment with an American Indian identity. From the beginning, the team’s jersey was emblazoned with the silhouette of a generic “Indian face,” designed by McLaughlin’s wife, and the jersey shoulder continues to be decorated with a pair of crisscrossed tomahawks. And while the Blackhawks organization and its fans take pride in the dignity of its Indian icon, generally refusing to practice the “tomahawk chop” associated with other franchises, Chicago spectators sporting extravagant feathered headdresses can be seen in the stadium during most games.

It is important to recognize that critiques of Native American mascots and logos are critiques of the cultural and historical category of Indian athletic mascots. It is relatively easy to identify the most popular categories of sports names and mascots, beginning with animals as the most common such category (which can be further broken down into sub-categories such as carnivores, birds of prey, etc.). Very near the top of this list, of course, are Native American peoples and, even, Indian epitaphs (eg. the R*dskins).

Attempts to defend one team’s Indian logo, over others, as more dignified, less buffoonish, or more accurate, although perhaps well-intentioned, seem to miss the point, which is that the concern centers on the very category making possible such symbolism in the first instance. Any attempt to fashion a sports team in terms of Indian signs and symbols cannot ever be considered separately from the colonial tradition of these (mostly) white men’s Indians.

It should be mentioned that the team has both cultivated a partnership with the American Indian Center in Chicago and features Chief Black Hawk on its website. But despite the team’s efforts, many of their fans still dress as imaginary Indians to cheer on their team, and worse, because athletic fandom already occupies a playful and at times transgressive space. Opponents will talk about “scalping” the team. A sports gambling website also used that very phrase to describe the Los Angeles Kings seeking their “biggest scalp” against the Blackhawks during this year’s Western Conference finals.

Of course, most people do not want to be seen as racist, and is this surely true of Blackhawks fans. But racism should not always be seen merely as something – a propensity, an attitude, or a specific hatred – that one person or another has within themselves. It is at least as important to consider the degree to which popular stories, icons, and traditions (what many term “discourses”) are themselves racial and racist.

A fan celebrates the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup victory. Photo courtesy of William Walsh.

Most Blackhawks fans I have talked to, white Americans, tend to react with sincere disbelief to the suggestion that their team’s name and logo are in anyway “racial,” let alone racist. In fact, a male fan who attended Saturday’s Game five in Chicago replied, in typical fashion, “But, the name doesn’t have anything to do with Indians; it’s not even a tribe name, it’s the name of the owner’s military battalion.”

In stark contrast, one young woman I spoke to suggested she was confused about the meaning of moniker, stating, “But, I don’t think the Blackhawk tribe even cares that their nation is used as the name of the team.” In the first instance, we see an indefensible denial of the intersection of the Chicago Blackhawks and American Indian themes, and in the second instance, we see how that very intersection has created enough slippage in this woman’s mind to convince her that a Native American people named Blackhawks actually exist.

Obviously, it is both easy and commonplace for people to find pleasure in something as ostensibly harmless as a hockey team’s jersey or the name of a football team. But, what is too often overlooked are the ways in which these images were made possible in the first place by quite specific stories of racial hierarchy and fantasy.

Obviously, it is both easy and commonplace for people to find pleasure in something as ostensibly harmless as a hockey team’s jersey or the name of a football team. But, what is too often overlooked are the ways in which these images were made possible in the first place by quite specific stories of racial hierarchy and fantasy.

In an era when race scholars seek to identify forms of privilege, racial or otherwise, we see that those who enjoy power too often allow themselves to ignore the racial contexts of something as “benign” as a hockey team’s logo. In fact, allowing oneself to ignore these contexts is itself a form of privilege and power.

And so, while I did not actively root for the Blackhawks’ championship opponents, the Boston Bruins, and was indeed impressed with Chicago’s miraculous last minute comeback as a hockey fan, I will not be purchasing a Stanley Cup “commemorative” shirt, and I did not attend the victory parade. I simply cannot ignore the variety of ways that the Blackhawks team, draped in American Indian imagery, perpetuates a legacy of the appropriation of reductive depictions of Native people in order to inspire non-native teams to victory.

Charles Fruehling Springwood is a professor of Anthropology at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he conducts research on the cultural politics of race and racial symbols.

Top image via Flickr Creative Commons

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  • laprofe63

    I love in Chicago, but I’m not from here, so I’m a spectator of the culture. I am also not a big sports person, so I have no emotional investment in any of it. Where I live, I come in contact with a wide mix of people through my dog. I will bring up this argument next time I can with one guy in particular, a mega fan–a native white, so to speak. It will be easy because he wears team gear all the time.

    I think he will also do the same as your examples: justify, rationalize, etc. Just as the folks did who appropriated/stole lands, and otherwise relegated Amerindians to the far margins of US society, every step of the way in the 500+ year enterprise.