Commentary

Dialogue is key with Blackhawks logo

Banning "Indian costumes" a good first step in fostering comfortable environment

Updated: June 20, 2014, 3:26 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Chicago Blackhawks logoRob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsJoe Podlasek, a longtime advocate for Native Americans, used to push for a logo change but said his opinion changed "because of open-minded leadership with the Chicago Blackhawks."

CHICAGO -- Like many 20-somethings in this city, Anthony Roy is a hockey fan. In theory, he's in the perfect demographic for the Chicago Blackhawks. He's 28, a professional and a Canadian-Chicagoan.

"Hockey's in our blood," he said to me in a phone conversation. But as the Blackhawks thrive, the computer programmer from the city and Manitoulin Island can't bring himself to go to the United Center.

"I haven't been to a game in a while," he said. "I'm not really into it lately. Going to a game, I have to get mentally prepared for it. Do I really want that stress in my life?"

See, Roy is a Native American hockey fan living in a hockey-crazy city, and his favorite team has an Indian head on its sweater. So, it's complicated.

While the Washington Redskins' brand is imploding, the Chicago Blackhawks' identity has never been stronger, especially in Chicago. Blackhawks jerseys are as ubiquitous as parking tickets on the streets of our city.

Being a Native American here, it's a trigger. It's a sea of floating dead Indian heads.

-- Anthony Roy, a Native American hockey fan living in Chicago

That's good, right? Well, it depends.

Roy, an Ojibwe and a member of the M'Chigeeng First Nation, wishes the Blackhawks would've changed their logo when the team reinvented itself. Of course, they didn't. Why would they? There were little to no protests for a team no one cared about.

Now, thanks to two Stanley Cups and the team's outsize success, the Indian head is everywhere. Roy doesn't have to go to a game to see it. He just has to live in Chicago.

"Being a Native American here, it's a trigger," Roy said. "It's a sea of floating dead Indian heads."

I've written a number of stories about the Blackhawks blanketing the city in their marks. But I never thought of it like that. You probably haven't, either. That's OK. It's easier not to think.

What do you feel when you put on a Blackhawks hat or a sweater?

You probably feel pride. You probably like the bright colors and the bold design and you think it represents Chicago. You love the Blackhawks. It's a resurgent team that has recaptured and grown its fan base.

When it comes to his team, Roy has a clear cognitive dissonance. He loves the Blackhawks. He has owned Blackhawks gear. But more and more, he just hates the logo. What does he feel?

"I like the team," Roy said. "It's the imagery. It's almost like I have to do what everyone else is doing: turning off my brain.

"When I go to a Chicago Wolves game, it's a totally different environment. I feel like I can let my hair down. Not having a race-based logo is such a difference for indigenous people. Why broadcast it?"

Everyone knows the "Black Hawks" (it became one word in 1986) were named for the military unit of the team's original owner, Frederic McLaughlin. The unit was named after Sauk Chief Black Hawk. That's appropriation that was widely used at the time by the military and sports teams. Indians as warriors is one of our oldest stereotypes.

This is a sensitive subject for some sports fans, so let's be clear: The Blackhawks are not the Redskins. Their name is not a slur. The Blackhawks are not the Cleveland Indians. Their logo isn't a cartoonish, leering Indian.

Popular or not, let's also be clear that the famed Blackhawks logo represents the same kind of cultural appropriation that Native American groups have been fighting for decades.

"Imagery," Roy said. "It's native appropriation. The thing is, this logo looks like my family."

You might say, "We're honoring [them]!" You're not, though. You're borrowing them. Not out of malice, mind you, but it's not an honor to some.

While there hasn't been much of a stir over the Blackhawks logo in the wake of the continued, hot-as-hell debate over the validity of the Redskins name, that doesn't mean there aren't people who are troubled by the Blackhawk logo.

In recent years, Roy, a budding activist and lecturer, has been a willing source when this story pops up in the news. He created a Facebook page called "This should be the Blackhawks Logo!" It uses the image of a fierce-looking black hawk with red, green, orange and yellow feathers.

The Blackhawks have been really genuine and open about meeting with the community and investing in the community. More importantly, they're interested in learning about our culture and heritage rather than assuming what they've learned in the past is right.

-- Joe Podlasek, a longtime advocate for Native Americans

That old drawing was done by Mike Ivall, a graphic designer and hockey photographer in Canada who is an Ojibwa. Ivall has said in interviews he didn't create the logo out of malice for the current one and has also created second and third logos that would look amazing on a Hawks jersey, if the team was so inclined.

To be fair, some Native Americans -- in Chicago and around North America -- are fine with the current Blackhawks logo. Some are not. No one speaks for an entire people.

"There's always a divide," Roy said.

For their part, the Blackhawks are careful not to use any Native American culture for entertainment purposes -- no Indian mascot, no Indian cheers. When former Blackhawks coach Denis Savard came up with that catchphrase, "Commit to the Indian," the team never co-opted it.

But fans still show up to games in headdresses. There aren't many, but they do.

The Blackhawks have, both publicly and privately, connected with the local Native American community for education and philanthropy. They smartly saw the benefits in a positive relationship with the Chicago-based American Indian Center. They haven't been combative or condescending, like some in Washington.

This story has popped up in the past five years as the team's popularity has grown. This time, the Blackhawks chose not to comment when I broached the subject over email.

In 2011, team officials talked to the Chicago Tribune about their outreach.

Last year, they sent a statement to USA Today which read, in part: "Through a genuine and ongoing dialogue we continue to learn about the needs of the native people in our community, display a reverence for their culture and their traditions, and understand the need for constant communication regarding the use and the depiction of native marks."

Roy, a grassroots activist, has never spoken to the team about his concerns over the logo.

But Joe Podlasek, a longtime advocate for Native Americans, has a relationship with the team. He used to push for a logo change. Now, he's accepted it.

"My goal is not to remove all Native images," he wrote in an email. "But for those that are respectful, to put an educational process behind them and share opportunities. Without that piece, nothing will change in the long run and history will repeat itself in generations to come."

Podlasek, the former executive director of the American Indian Center, now runs the Trickster Art Gallery in Schaumburg, Illinois, and serves as vice president of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. He got in touch with the Blackhawks during the 2010 season and was pleased that the leadership of the team reached out to him, not its lawyers.

Podlasek said his view changed "because of open-minded leadership with the Chicago Blackhawks. Concepts can change as we all learn and grow and that is what the world is about, respect, communication and engagement can either create partnerships or draw the line."

He said the local Native American community probably runs "70-30" in favor of the logo. He owns Blackhawks gear, as does his family. He was also a voice in decrying Chief Illiniwek, the deposed University of Illinois mascot. He calls the Redskins name "derogatory." This is different.

"The Blackhawks have been really genuine and open about meeting with the community and investing in the community," Podlasek said in a phone conversation. "More importantly, they're interested in learning about our culture and heritage rather than assuming what they've learned in the past is right."

Podlasek has helped forge a relationship between the team and Native American soldiers. The team has honored them before games, including in the playoffs. There is a wall at the Trickster Gallery dedicated to this connection.

The team has also invested with the American Indian Center, giving money and taking part in a dialogue.

Podlasek's goal is for Blackhawks fans to understand and respect that the team represents Native Americans and their past. That it's not just a logo, like a bear or a bull.

"Cultural education and awareness works!" he wrote in an email. "In the last three years there is now less than 1 percent of fans that wear the fake and misrepresentation costumes to the games, where it used to be over 35 percent, and families dressing their kids up too."

Certainly, there should be continued conversation about what constitutes an important part of the Blackhawks' identity and what is old-fashioned appropriation.

The first thing the Blackhawks should do is officially ban any "Indian costumes" from games. No more headdresses. If the fan disagrees, boot him out.

After that, they should think seriously about introducing more "alternate" logos (A fierce-looking bird? A soaring hawk?), which, frankly, would be a financial boon for the organization, and it would perhaps make fans like Roy feel more comfortable about embracing their team.

I don't think the team has to change its name. I don't think the team is actively trying to disrespect Native American culture. This isn't Washington.

But the logo offends some by its simple existence. It represents a time when people considered "Indians" to be mascots.

Times have changed.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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