by Matt Rowan
I remember way, way back in high school taking a U.S. History course that opened my eyes to certain realities, to put it mildly. Before it, I was familiar with certain prejudicial institutions, take the need for a civil rights movement in the 1960s or the push for women’s suffrage in the ‘20s. Native American history, its grim specter, was something I’d more or less kept myself in the dark about, save knowledge of the unjust treaties, trail of tears, and the re- education schools we basically opened for the purpose of cultural genocide, to Christianize and therefore eradicate the “savage.” I knew about those things, sort of. I’d seen The Education of Little Tree!
In class, we read bits and pieces of what detractors would probably call all the best liberal propaganda: A People’s History by Howard Zinn, an analysis of other ethnicities co-opted and caricatured for sport in the same way Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians is, tons of reports on the American Indian Movement and Leonard Peltier’s wrongful incarceration, the movie Thunderheart starring Val Kilmer. It was really illuminating. I learned a lot of things. I was hopefully less the dismissive, pig headed jock who loved war-glorifying films like Patton (which I still think is pretty cool, if not terribly accurate, historically speaking). I think I was.
In college, I got even more exposure to works concerned with the plight of Native Americans and their portrayal in our culture. Take Ward Churchill, for example, who argued among other things, that if we have an NFL team called the Redskins to “honor” Native Americans we could (and should) likewise have a team called some equivalent racial slur vis-a-vis African Americans (Churchill specifically proposed the n-word), to similarly “honor” them. It did occur to me at some point around this time that during my last two years of high school my team (whose mascot is the Warriors, its own controversy I won’t wade into at the moment) played in the same conference as a school that changed its mascot from the Indians to the Wolves. To me, the switch from the Indians to the Wolves was telling, a microcosm of the mascot as a symbol. Going from a group of human beings to feral pack animals says something about how we view these images, doesn’t it? It’s not as if the Fighting Irish are represented by a “mick.” Their mascot is a leprechaun. It really is, in the event you’re hung up on their team name.
The closest we get to something resembling even remotely the same idea are characters like the Patriots and Yankees, but even they’re false equivalencies. The Yankees are especially so, considering “Yankee Doodle” is the state song of Connecticut according to Wikipedia (an interesting fact I didn’t know!), though that didn’t stop at least one guy from making a claim. I don’t have much to add to that. I like to think my point is made for me, but there’s probably some overly privileged, empathy-challenged person who’ll disagree. For all others, follow the links above.
And so here’s what I’m getting at, at last. I’m a person who’s knowledgeable about the negative history of appropriating Native Americans’ likenesses for sport, and have been for a long time, and still remain a raging hypocrite in a lot of ways. The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks are less than a week away from kicking off the 2013-14 season, and I really couldn’t be more excited about that. Accordingly, I find ways to apologize for the “Indian Head” logo that represents the team. That lone white vacant eye it seems to have at the side profile angle it rests at, along with all the regalia Black Hawk presumably would have been adorned in — feathers and war paint, etc. I have a decal of the logo on a corner of the rear window of my car. I’m both proud and ashamed of it, simultaneously. I suppose it’s some form of cognitive dissonance that allows this, but I’m pretty aware of it in that case. Separation of sports from the value of treating others as you’d want, then?
But I’m content with the status quo in so many ways where the team name / mascot is concerned. Not that I’d actively encourage the Blackhawks to continue to refer to themselves as such, but I’m not actively pursuing a name change, either. What I’m getting at, I think, is I’d like to stimulate a discussion, maybe with you Cleveland Indians fans, or Redskins fans (especially Redskins fans, actually), or Kansas City Chiefs fans and so on. I don’t know what I’m doing. What are your thoughts? What do you think?
Maybe I should remove the decal?