Z Magazine, March 2015
Imagine the outrage that would arise within and beyond Germany if one of that nation’s professional soccer clubs named itself “The Fighting Jews,” “The Rabbis,” or “The Battling Hebrews,” and placed an exaggerated, cartoon-like image of an old Jewish man from 1930s Berlin on its players’ jerseys and jackets. Such an action would be unthinkable given the potent historical memory of the Nazi Holocaust inside and outside Germany. So would the application by the German military of names like “Jew” or “Gypsy” to any of its military aircraft, missiles, or operations.
In the United States, however, American Indian names and logos—appropriated from indigenous people the U.S. military and white settlers largely exterminated in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—persist in professional, collegiate, and high school athletics and also in the military. Some of the team names and logos have elicited considerable criticism, leading to changes in team imagery and ceremony. The names and many of the logos persist, however.
“Delivering My County of Those Merciless Savages”
The worst Indian team name by far in professional U.S. sports is the National Football League’s Washington Redskins, which is just openly racist. Next came Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, whose home uniform and cap include a picture of a maniacally grinning and red-skinned “Indian Chief” with a strangely shaped head and a feather sticking up from the back of his skull. These two franchises—neither of which is particularly successful—top the Professional Sports Indian Team Name and Logo Hall of Shame. They have caught no small well-deserved flak for their names and logos from Indian rights activists over the years. A comparatively quiet third place (formerly held by baseball’s Atlanta Braves, who have softened their racist Indian imagery in recent years) in major professional U.S. sports goes to the NHL hockey team the Chicago Blackhawks, a recently successful franchise (winner of two Stanley Cup championships over the last five years) that is named after Black Hawk, a once famous early 19th century Sauk Nation warrior from northern Illinois. For reasons indicated later in this essay, the Blackhawks have largely escaped critical scrutiny for its Native American appellation and imagery.
If you go to a Blackhawks game at the United Center in Chicago (as I do once every few years), you will find yourself surrounded by at least 15,000 mostly white middle-class people wearing the team’s bright red jersey with the logo representing the onetime Sauk Indian warrior Black Hawk covering their bellies.
What do the masses of the very predominantly white Black Hawks enthusiasts who proudly don the jersey (also ubiquitous at Blackhawks away games) know—or care to know—about the history of the individual represented in the logo? Nothing, or next to it. Just ask one.
One indication of this historical ignorance is the fans’ habitual reference to the individual depicted in the logo as “Chief Blackhawk.” Neither word in that designation is technically accurate. The Native American who is rather badly depicted in the logo was not a chief. Black Hawk, called Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak by his people, a band of the Algonquin-speaking Sauk Indians, was born in 1767 in the village of Saukenuk in the northwestern section of what later became the state of Illinois. He grew up to become a famous and influential Sauk warrior, but never a “chief.” In 1829, Black Hawk’s band returned home from a winter hunt to find white American imperial settlers living in their Saukenuk lodges. “Indian unrest” ensued. Two years later, U.S. forces summarily ordered the expulsion of the Sauk from the richly fertile forests and plains of western Illinois. The U.S. General Land Office put the Sauks’ property (including Black Hawk’s lodge) up for sale. The Sauk were told to move west of the Mississippi River. Over the winter of 1831-1832, white settlers moved into Saukenuk.
The following spring, the 65-year-old-Black Hawk returned with 300 warriors and their families from the winter hunt to reclaim their home village, which they saw as the “center of the world.” U.S. General Edmund P. Gaines arrived with a large force of U.S. soldiers and Illinois militia. At first, Black Hawk led his large band of warriors, women, and children in retreat, to the west side of the Mississippi. On April 5, 1832, however, he brought them back, mistakenly convinced that other Indian forces and the British to the north would support him in a struggle with the white invaders. A 15-week conflict ensued, concluding with the near annihilation of Black Hawk’s band as it attempted to escape.
Battle of Bad Axe
The “Black Hawk War” was incredibly one-sided. The Sauk and Fox Indians lost 600 people, including hundreds of woman and children. Just 70 soldiers and settlers were killed. The conflict culminated in the so-called Battle of Bad Axe, on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, near the present-day community of Victory in southwest Wisconsin. Better described as a massacre than a “battle,” this American military triumph involved U.S. General Henry Atkinson killing every Indian who tried to run for cover or to flee across the Mississippi River. On August 1, 1832, Black Hawk’s band reached the Mississippi at its confluence with the Bad Axe River. What followed was an atrocity, committed despite the Indians’ repeated attempts at surrender. As the Sauk refugees readied canoes and rafts, the U.S. steamboat Warrior arrived. Black Hawk attempted to negotiate under truce. The Americans unleashed their weapons, killing two dozen Sauk warriors. “As we neared them,” one U.S. officer who “served” in the U.S. assault recalled, “they raised a white flag and endeavored to decoy us, but we were a little too old for them.” Hundreds of Sauk and Fox men, women and children were shot, clubbed, and bayoneted to death at the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers on August 2. U.S. soldiers scalped most of the dead. They cut long strips of flesh from dead and wounded Indians for use as razor strops. The slaughter was supported by cannon and rifle fire from the aptly named U.S. military ship Warrior, which picked off tribal members swimming for their lives. The United States suffered 5 dead and 19 wounded in the “Battle of Bad Axe” (see Kerry Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, New York, 2007; Ian Barnes, The Historical Atlas of Native Americans, New York, 2009; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, New York, 2003).
In a popular account of the “battle” published two years later, U.S. Major John Allen Wakefield offered some interesting reflections: “It was a horrid sight to witness little children, wounded and suffering the most excruciating pain, although they were of the savage enemy, and the common enemy of the country…It was enough to make the heart of the most hardened being on earth to ache.” But, Wakefield wrote, “I must confess, that it filled my heart with gratitude and joy, to think that I had been instrumental, with many others, in delivering my country of those merciless savages, and restoring those [invading white] people again to their peaceful homes and firesides.”
Such sentiments were common among American army and militia members, who reveled in the mass murder of indigenous people. As a government agent told the Sauk Indians: “Our Great Father…will forbear no longer. He has tried to reclaim [Native Americans] and they grow worse. He is resolved to sweep them from the face of the earth…. If they cannot be made good they must be killed.” By Wakefield’s account, the U.S. troops at Bad Axe “shrank not from their duty. They all joined in the work of death for death it was. We were by this time fast getting rid of those demons in human shape…the Ruler of the Universe, He who takes vengeance on the guilty, did not design those guilty wretches to escape His vengeance” (Wakefield’s History of the Black Hawk War, Calvin Goudy Press, 1834).
Andrew Jackson Indian Killer
The top “demon in human shape”—“chief” Black Hawk—escaped death and lived six years beyond the “war” (slaughter) that bore his name. He was sent to a U.S. reservation in Iowa after President Andrew Jackson (a famous and prolific Indian-killer) had Black Hawk paraded as a celebrity freak and war booty as an exotic and sub-human savage and as proof of the United States’ military’s alleged great prowess in defeating such barbarian brutes—before gawking crowds in eastern U.S. cities. None of this history, sad to say, holds the slightest bit of interest for any but a minuscule percentage of the Chicago Blackhawks’ fervent and highly caucasian fan base.
A Military Connection
According to the Chicago Blackhawks’ public relations office, their teams’ name and logo is a tribute to the bravery and fighting spirit of the great Sauk warrior—a spirit its players seek to epitomize on NHL ice rinks. Similar claims are made by other teams with Indian names and logos. The Redskins, the Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles, and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and all the rest say the same thing: their Indian names and logos honor the Native Americans who courageously and skillfully defended their own ill-fated lands and ways of life.
Interestingly enough, the U.S. military says the same thing about the considerable amount of military hardware—helicopters especially—and military operations it has given Native American names. The military helicopters include the Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and the Black Hawk Attack chopper. There is also the Tomahawk, a low-altitude U.S. cruise missile, and a drone named for an Indian chief, Gray Eagle. The operation that killed Osama bin Laden was given the title Geronimo.
The Chicago Blackhawks are the only sports Indian team name in the country that has a direct connection to the military’s use of Indian names. The team’s name was selected in 1926 by its founding owner Frederic McLaughlin, who decided on the label because he had commanded a machine gun battalion in the U.S. Army’s “86th Blackhawk Division” during World War 1.
It is better, perhaps, to claim to celebrate and uphold liquidated Native Americans of the past than it is to engage in the liquidation of Native Americans in the present. But, as the former New Republic editor Franklin Foer noted eight years ago, “there’s a sizeable flaw” in the reasoning behind the claim that Indian team names and logos pay respectful homage to the skill and courage of past Indian people and fighters. As Foer argued: “Americans can only pay this kind of obeisance because they have slaughtered the Indians. Nobody is around to object to turning them into cartoon images…. The cartoon images of mascots freeze the Indians in time, portraying them as they lived in the 19th century at the time of the west’s conquest, wearing leather suits and feather headdresses. It becomes impossible to imagine the remaining Indians ever transcending their primitivism, ever leaving their reservations and assimilating into society. The same sort of cartoon image has afflicted the European Jews [in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust]. No matter how hard they try, they’re stuck as outsiders and ‘others’ in the continental mind [consistent with]…an old aphorism…‘a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews’” (Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization).
There are flaws in Foer’s own logic. It seems misplaced to describe 19th century North American indigenous people with the phrase “primitivism” when those people related to each other and to the Earth in egalitarian and sustainable ways that put contemporary capitalism’s savagely unequal social relations and related eco-cidal environmental practices to shame. While the European Jewish Holocaust has been strongly acknowledged and honored both within and beyond Europe, the American Indian Holocaust (see Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present) continues to face denial and disinterest in the U.S. Europeans enjoy significant socioeconomic security and privilege on the whole while Native Americans are mired at the bottom of the United States’ steep economic pyramid. Many Indian reservations more than just rival the nation’s worst-off Black ghettoes for social and economic misery.
Imagine “the Chicago Fredericks” or “the Chicago Bad Axes”
Still, Foer is right to note how the team names and logos function to portray Native Americans as unchanging and backwards inferiors who are justly excluded from mainstream society and its benefits. Equally germane is his observation that the tribes the U.S. military crushed in the 19th century are no longer around to object to the appropriation of their onetime images as fighting mascots for contemporary sports teams. Imagine if the Chicago Blackhawks wanted to change their name to, say, “The Pancho Villas,” replacing “chief” Black Hawk’s picture with a portrait of the Mexican revolutionary or to the “The Fredericks,” with a fierce-looking profile of the great 19th century escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass on the front of the team’s jersey. My examples are absurd, of course, but the point is that neither move would ever be remotely considered because—among other things—Blackhawks management would rightly anticipate protest from living Latina/o and Black communities within and beyond Chicago.
In the Sauks’ case, as with numerous other Native American tribes wiped out by U.S. troops, their white- skinned and blue-coated killers had of course little respectful to say about “the savages” they lustily butchered. The killers didn’t praise the Indians as commendable opponents. They thanked God for helping them complete the one-sided slaughter of the “red-skinned” “demons in human shape,” including defenseless indigenous children and their mothers. This suggests something deeper and darker than mere insensitivity.
The notion of the vanquished indigenous as fearsome and worthy adversaries serves to delete the real history of one-sided racist and imperial genocide—a savagely unequal conquest—that lay behind the “winning of the [U.S.] west.” It helps contemporary white Americans think that the North American continent was obtained in an evenhanded contest, not through massively superior murderous force and bloody criminality. At the same time, it has long boosted the nation’s sense of military power by selling the myth that rugged white U.S. soldiers prevailed over truly threatening and potent “homeland” enemies. As Simon Waxman, editor of the Boston Review, noted in a brilliant reflection last summer: “Why do we name our battles and weapons after people we have vanquished? For the same reason the Washington team is the Redskins and my hometown Red Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians and to Atlanta to play the Braves, because the myth of the worthy native adversary is more palatable than the reality—the conquered tribes of this land were not rivals but victims, cheated, and impossibly outgunned. The destruction of the Indians was asymmetric war, compounded by deviousness in the name of imperialist manifest destiny. White America shot, imprisoned, lied, swindled, preached, bought, built and voted its way to domination. Identifying our powerful weapons and victorious campaigns with those we subjugated serves to lighten the burden of our guilt. It confuses violation with a fair fight.
“It is worse than denial; it is propaganda. The message carried by the word Apache emblazoned on one of history’s great fighting machines is that the Americans overcame an opponent so powerful and true that we are proud to adopt its name. They tested our mettle, and we proved stronger, so don’t mess with us. In whatever measure it is tribute to the dead, it is in greater measure a boost to our national sense of superiority….” Noam Chomsky has clarified the moral stakes in provocative, instructive terms: “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy’ (Simon Waxman, “The U.S. Military’s Ongoing Slur of Native Americans” Washington Post, June 26, 2014).
The leading historian of the Black Hawk War, Kerry Trask, puts it very well. “In the American experience it has most often been the shedding of Indian blood that has transformed the profane wilderness—the land where white people were aliens who did not belong—into the sacred space of the Republic. Through the killing of the native people, white men came to believe in their own power and superiority and their right to possess a land that was not their own” (Trask, Black Hawk, 306).
Keeping Waxman and Trask’s reflection and Chomsky’s analogy in mind, consider another name change and logo the Blackhawks would never consider: “The Chicago Bad Axes,” with a picture of a manically grinning and bearded white U.S. soldier scalping a bloody, murdered Sauk child. Never mind the painful historical accuracy of the image and name.
Why the Blackhawks Get a Pass
The Blackhawks’ name and logo has received relatively little criticism compared to the more fully provocative names and logos of the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, along with (to mention some collegiate examples), the Florida State Seminoles, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and the Illinois Fighting Illini. Part of the explanation is that hockey is not as big a deal in the U.S. as either football (which passed baseball as the nation’s most popular sport by far years ago) or baseball in the U.S. It also runs well behind basketball. Another part of why the Blackhawks seem to get a pass is that, as CBS Chicago sports commentator Tim Baffoe noted during the team’s 2013 championship run, “the Hawks don’t use a caricature or slur that other teams have come under fire for. In fact, there is almost zero Native American ‘stuff’ used by the organization other than just their very famous logo.”
Like the Indian head on the Washington Redskins’ helmet, Black Hawk’s head and face is not distorted: it’s just a sort of “badass” (Baffoe’s term) profile of a fierce looking 19th century Native American warrior. The Blackhawks have nothing like the mass Tomahawk chop and chant that have long been central parts of the fan experience at the home games of the Seminoles and the Braves (the second team also used to feature a mock Indian called “Chief Noc a homa” who would come out of a “teepee” to dance whenever the Braves hit a home run).
That’s all to the Chicago Blackhawks’ credit, I suppose, but none of it really softens the deeper, time-freezing, and power-appropriating offense inherent in the use of Indian names and logos.
One of the curious things about the Chicago Blackhawks’ version of the problem is that—unlike the Redskins, the Indians, the Braves, the Fighting Sioux, and the Illini—they don’t have to change their name to correct the situation. All they need do is change their logo to the beautiful predatory bird that Black Hawk was named after. As anyone who has watched a fair bit of ice hockey knows, this logo is a perfect image for the sport, suggesting a swiftly skating forward swooping down on a loose puck to shoot past an enemy goalie. Chicago has the Bears, the Cubs (baby bears), and the Bulls (perhaps a perverse tribute to the animals that used to be slaughtered en masse in the city’s once great meatpacking and slaughtering plants—Upton Sinclair’s Jungle) along with the White Sox (the “pale hose”) and the Fire (the city’s soccer team, named after Chicago’s famous 1871 conflagration). Why not become the city’s fourth professional sports team to take its name from the animal kingdom?
Hockey Yes, Empire No
The related problem of Indian slurs (names and logos) in the U.S. military is a much tougher matter. For better or worse, city- and school-specific hockey, basketball, soccer, baseball, and (I reluctantly imagine) football teams will likely continue in the United States after we make our overdue transition to democratic and participatory socialism—after the popular revolution. Not so the weapons of global conquest and the U.S. “defense” (empire) budget that accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and more than half of U.S. federal discretionary spending. They must be dismantled. Here re-branding and apologies for offense will not suffice. The resources devoted to the manufacture and maintenance of Black Hawk Attack Helicopters, Tomahawk Missiles, and numerous other deadly and highly expensive tools of U.S.-American Empire must be redirected to addressing a vast ocean of unmet human needs abroad and in the “homeland,” where 16.4 million children, 22 percent of all U.S. minors—including 36 percent of Native American children—live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (this while the U.S. top 1 percent possesses more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of the population).
A good place to start meeting those needs is in the nation’s Native American reservations, where the legacy of past U.S. ethnic cleansing and asymmetric conquest is evident in deep poverty and despair that is shamefully mocked by the “proud” Indian names and logos deployed by sports teams and the military at home and abroad.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).