The Chicago Blackhawks and the American Empire

I am not one of those bookish and arrogant leftists or liberals who self-righteously denounces mass spectator sports as inherently authoritarian and proto-fascistic.  I’m in the David Zirin camp, you might say – a relatively sports-friendly leftist (with the exception of US football) who sees nothing necessarily terrible about the barroom conversation turning from the Left critique of US imperialism to how the Chicago Bulls might contend for an NBA title this season or to who belongs in the baseball Hall of Fame.  I will even admit to holding a certain nationalistic pride over the US invention of baseball, the most perfect and beautiful sport known to human civilization.

Still, there are numerous aspects of contemporary US mass spectator sports that I can’t abide.  Examples include the now ubiquitous playing and singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch at minor and major league baseball games (this violates my belief in the separation of baseball and state); the preposterous plethora of commercials that can make the last three minutes of play in a close NCAA tournament basketball game take twenty minutes to complete; the entire travesty that is contemporary mass-concussive (brain-mashing) US football (which actually is a pro-fascistic spectacle unfit for a remotely civilized society); and, of special significance for this essay, the persistence of American Indian team names and logos in professional and collegiate athletics.  As I will suggest below, this last problem is a topic that takes us back to US military imperialism.

“Like the New York Niggers”
The worst team name by far in professional US sports is the NFL’s Washington Redskins, which is just openly racist; the black comedian Chris Rock once said it was “like naming a team ‘the New York Niggers.’”

Next come 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, hands down.  They have caught no small well-deserved flak for their names and logos from Indian rights activists over the years.

“Delivering My County of Those Merciless Savages”
A quiet third place goes, it pains me to say, to my longstanding 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 an early 19th century Sauk warrior from northern Illinois named Black Hawk. For reasons indicated later in this essay, this professional sports club has 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 two or so 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 following logo purporting to represent the onetime Sauk Indian warrior Black Hawk covering their bellies:

hawk-head-201--wallpaper-white-200
What do the masses of the very predominantly white Blackhawks 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, US forces summarily ordered the expulsion of the Sauk from the richly fertile forests and plains of western Illinois. The US 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 militiamen. 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.

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:

“While the Sauk refugees were preparing rafts and canoes, the armed [U.S.] steamboat Warrior arrived, whereupon Black Hawk tried to negotiate with its troops under a flag of truce. The Americans opened fire, killing twenty-three warriors.”

“As we neared them,” one US 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 2nd. US 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 US 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.”

In a popular account of the “battle” published two years later, US Major John Allen Wakefield offered some interesting reflections. “It was a horrid sight,” Wakefield wrote, “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 US 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…”

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 US reservation in Iowa after US President Andrew Jackson (himself 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 US cities. [1]

None of this history, I am 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.

False and Ironic Obeisance
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 Braves 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 US 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 US 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 US Army’s “86th Blackhawk Division” during World War 1.[1A]

(For what it’s worth, I’ve never attended a Chicago Blackhawks game where the team did not trot a military “hero” [veteran] or two out on the ice in connection with the signing of the US national anthem [the Blackhawks’ feature the loudest and most overwrought version of that hideous song in contemporary US sports] before each game.)

It is better, I suppose, 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 nineteenth 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.’”[2]

There are flaws in Foer’s own logic. It seems misplaced to describe nineteenth 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[3] continues to face denial and disinterest in the US.  Jewish Europeans enjoy significance 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
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 US 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 – the Blackhawks’ management would rightly anticipate protest from living Latina/o and Black communities within and beyond Chicago.

“Confusing Violation with a Fair Fight”
In the Sauks’ case as with other Native American tribes wiped out by US troops, of course, their white-skinned and blue-coated killers had 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 enjoy 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 in the honor that US sports teams and the US military claim to give to massacred Indians by naming sports teams and military tools and operations after Native American victims. 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 [US] 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 US 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.’ ” [4]

The “Chicago Bad Axes”?  
Keeping Waxman’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 US 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’ offensive 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 mentions some collegiate examples), the Florida State Seminoles, The North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and the Illinois Fighting Illini.  Part of the explanation is thatt hockey is not as big a deal as either football (which tragically passed baseball as the nation’s most popular sport by far years ago) or baseball in the US. It runs well behind basketball as well.

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 nineteen 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 offense inherent in the use of Indian names and logos.

New Logo
One of the curious things about the 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 Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak was nicknamed after – something like this, perhaps:

Black_Hawk_Logo
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 (a 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 US 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 US “defense” (empire) budget that accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and more than half of US 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 US-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 US minors – including 36 percent of Native American children – live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (this while the US top 1% possesses more wealth than the bottom 90% of the population).  A good place to start meeting those needs is in the nation’s forgotten Native American reservations, where the legacy of past US 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 US sports teams and the military at home and abroad.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.

Selected Endnotes
1. For background and sources on the Sauk and the “Black Hawk War,” see  Kerry Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (Holt, 2007); Ian Barnes, The Historical Atlas of Native Americans (New York: Chartwell, 2009), 267;  Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harperperennial, 2003), 130-131;  Wakefield’s History of the Black Hawk War (Jacksonville, IL: Calvin Goudy Press, 1834), full text available at http://archive.org/stream/wakefieldshistor00wakerich/wakefieldshistor00wakerich_djvu.txt
1A.  Between 1926 and 1985, the Chicago NHL franchise was known as the “Black Hawks,” a direct use of the Black Hawk’s nickname.  Since 1986, it’s been one word: “Blackhawks.”
2.  Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 83.
3. See Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights, 2001).
4.  Simon Waxman. “The U.S. Military’s Ongoing Slur of Native Americans,” Washington Post, June 26, 2014.

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By | 2015-01-17T15:43:54+00:00 January 17th, 2015|Articles|