Blackhawks Logo

The face of the Stanley Cup Final for Chicago might be the one without a voice.

Not Patrick Kane. Not Jonathan Toews. But instead, the stoic, solemn face on the sweaters. The Blackhawk we know. The logo. For many fans, a source of pride.

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For some fans, a source of pain.

In 2014, when Native American and Chicago native Anthony Roy viewed the logo widespread across his city, he described the scene as he saw it to ESPN’s Jon Greenberg:

“Being a Native American here, it’s a trigger,” he told Greenberg. “It’s a sea of floating dead Indian heads.”

That sentiment has a history behind it. The Black Hawk we no longer remember was the son of a medicine man and a war leader. A distinctly anti-American one. He led Sauk and Fox tribesmen during the War of 1812 … in support of British troops. And in the Bad Axe Massacre of 1832, he saw hundreds of his brethren die in his last attempt to stave off encroaching Americans, an Illinois militia and manifest destiny.

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Black Hawk was captured in 1833. His reward for resistance should sound familiar.

Black Hawk’s captors took him on a tour. To fascinated crowds along the East Coast, they wrongly coined him a chief, making a media firestorm out of a stereotype that rears its head every Halloween, or at hockey games in the Windy City: The noble savage, they paraded him like a puppet for show.

Like a mascot.

Years later, an army unit formed during World War I adopted the name of a man who once fought the American military. The 86th Infantry became the Blackhawk Division. It took Black Hawk’s history as its own to elicit images of a noble warrior.

Like a mascot.

Maj. Frederic McLaughlin served as an officer in that unit. He also founded the Chicago Blackhawks.

Eighty-nine years later, the Blackhawks logo has never been so beloved, or so visible. With two teams left standing in the Stanley Cup playoffs, more eyes than usual descend on the sport of hockey. And for many of those who have heard the whispers of discontent surrounding Washington’s NFL team name turn into calls for change, a question comes up:

Where’s the controversy in Chicago?

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Obvious reasons make the case in Washington worse. That franchise's nickname generalizes a diverse range of Native American cultures under a single skin color. Team owner Daniel Snyder essentially buys the support of indigenous leaders. And the team-promoted propaganda website makes The Onion look honest.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, efforts have been made by the Blackhawks to show respect. Few fans demean Native Americans with insulting traditions like the Braves’ tomahawk chop or Indians fans’ frequent wearing of red face. In the locker room, no one steps on the logo, as not to stomp on a revered man’s face. And beyond the ice, the team has partnered with Chicago’s American Indian Center to raise awareness.

As recently as last season's Stanley Cup run, the Blackhawks chose not to comment on the issue. But local Native American leaders have given them credit for effort and outreach. They're not ignoring the issue.

But it’s a matter of degree. Murder is worse than assault, but a crime is a crime, whether it occurs against a person or a culture. Just because Washington is worse, it does not mean Chicago deserves a pass. The logo, which bears about as much resemblance to Black Hawk as it does to Pocahontas, commits the same crime as Washington’s nickname: For the sake of sport, it silences history.

For the sake of a team’s tradition, it diminishes the tradition of the man it parodies.

And it has to go.

A common refrain comes from the chorus of R-word supporters and Indian logo loyalists: The team is honoring Native Americans, not disrespecting them. But many Native Americans beg to differ.

"You're not, though," Roy told ESPN. "You're borrowing them."

In February 2013, a daylong symposium on the use of Native American imagery in sports produced powerful testimonials. Perhaps none was as potent as that of John Orendorff — a U.S. Army colonel and Native American who has seen both sides of Black Hawk’s re-appropriation firsthand.

"I often feel that the underlying point of these 'honors' is that my Indian heritage is owned by others,” Orendorff said. “The message I'm constantly getting is: 'We own you. We will define how we honor you. Don't tell us whether you like it or not, because we own you. When we hunt down Osama bin Laden, we can refer to him as Geronimo — which happens to be my son's name — because we own you. You don't control how you're perceived. We control that. Because we own you.'"

And that’s why the Blackhawk logo has no place in a country that pretends to be proud of its heritage. It’s not just a dead Indian head, as Roy said, but a symbol of a dead awareness. The result of a culture conveniently relegated to the reservation, then forgotten, then remade for purposes of entertainment.

We did this with African-Americans, too. Traces of minstrel show tropes made their way into the Harlem Globetrotters' routine, mocking what was once common practice: to play to the worst stereotypes, to twist the African-American culture into something funny, for the pleasure of a paying, white audience. For Native Americans, it still happens.

Sports steal their drumbeats to pump up the crowd, drumbeats which sometimes signify the heartbeats of the Native American dead. Sports steal their faces for logos, which more often presented clean skin and smiles than war paint or savagery. Sports steal their feathers and jewelry and iconography, relics of culture turned into bleacher-seat cosmetics.

But hey, it’s hard to honor a culture when you know nothing about it.

In a 2010 Chicago Tribune article, American Indian Center events coordinator Cyndee Fox-Starr had a simple wish as the Blackhawks surged:

“Maybe others will see we’re a people, not mascots.” What a concept.

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Five years later, the team continues to take, to twist a name, a culture, a history — and turn it into a commoditized caricature. Gone is Black Hawk’s history. In its place, a smiling cartoon Indian. A profitable, popular cartoon Indian.

A cartoon stitched on the chests, printed on foam fingers and hats of a mostly white, largely affluent fan base that unsurprisingly struggles to empathize with either the old story of Native Americans losing their land and their lives, or the new story: poverty, poor resources and no platform to stand on.

You see, the people struggling to make money off the Native American brand, look and culture are the ones still living in it: the ones who realize there are several shades of red.

And that’s the bottom line: the bottom line. Teams mired in the mild controversy of Native American imagery in sport will point to the cost of rebranding. As if there is no precedent. As if the college sports scene isn’t littered with brands that survived. Dartmouth started the trend in 1969, dropping “Indians” for Big Green. The list of others that dropped nicknames, logos and mascots isn’t short: It includes Oklahoma, Marquette, Stanford, Syracuse, St. Bonaventure, Siena, St. Mary’s and the Miami of the Midwest, among others.

And just a two-hour drive down the road from Chicago, once the NCAA cracked down on offensive Native American mascots and caricatures, Illinois retired racist mascot Chief Illiniwek.

These brands — and don't get it twisted, D-I athletic programs are brands — adjusted, and survived.

Fans lost nothing but the chance to wear war paint purchased from the discount-store school of Native American History. Unlike the subjects of the logos they once wore, they still had a voice that could be heard. They could still cheer for a winning tradition without being mocked.

But the Blackhawk logo, and its misguided history, lives on.

Thousands of Native American faces appear at United Center, all smiling, all looking in one direction, stitch-patterns in sweaters frozen in the present. The past forgotten.

Thousands of fans come from far and wide to watch the spectacle: the latest, the Blackhawks trying to defend their home ice against the white-clad Lightning. The past repeating itself.

And Black Hawk will be honored. When the anthem of the nation that re-appropriated his history plays, his fans will cover his eyes as they cover their heart.

When the popcorn from the fields of Illinois and Iowa he once frequented gets too greasy, his fans will wipe it across his face, like paint. And he’ll be ready for the war he never wanted to win.

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