Sorry, the Chicago Blackhawks Need to Change Their Name and Logo

Photograph Source: Resolute – CC BY-SA 3.0

“Fast Getting Rid of Those Demons in Human Shape”

The great Sauk warrior Black Hawk, called Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (“Black Sparrow Hawk”) in the Algonquian language of his people, was born in 1767 in the glorious village of Saukenuk in the northwestern section of what later became the state of Illinois. In 1829, Black Hawk’s Sauk band returned home from a winter hunt to find white American imperial settlers living in their Saukenuk lodges. There followed what American authorities called “Indian unrest,” as one might imagine.

Two years later, United States ordered the removal of the Sauk from the richly fertile forests and plains and river valleys of northern and 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, more white “settlers” occupied Saukenuk. The following spring, 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 Sauk warriors, women, and children in retreat, to the west side of the Mississippi. On April 5, 1832, however, he brought them back, mistakenly believing that other Indian forces and the British to the north would support him in a struggle to regain their stolen territory from the Yankee invaders. A 15-week conflict ensued, concluding with the near annihilation of Black Hawk’s band as it attempted to escape.

The so-called Black Hawk War was a viciously sided affair. The Sauk and Fox Indians lost 600 people, including hundreds of woman and children. Just 70 U.S. soldiers and settlers were killed.

The conflict culminated in the August 1, 1832 “Battle of Bad Axe,” on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, near the present-day community of Victory in southwest Wisconsin. “While the Sauk refugees were preparing rafts and canoes,” historian Kerry Trask writes, “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 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 Warrior, which picked off tribal members swimming for their lives.

The United States suffered 5 dead 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.”

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 across Eastern cities as a celebrity freak and war booty – an exotic savage held up to gawking white crowds as proof of the United States military’s alleged prowess in defeating barbarian brutes.

The “Black Hawk War” was a lopsided campaign of ethnic cleansing that removed all of northern Illinois’ original inhabitants West of the Mississippi.

The northern Illinois historian Terry Thomas writes the following about “the open wound that was Black Hawk’s later years, after his surrender, imprisonment, and effacement, all of which happened as his homeland was turned into farms and towns”:

“Eventually they let him out of the cage, took him on a tour of eastern cities, like some exotic animal, and then he died. But still they wouldn’t let him alone. A local doctor dug up his bones and took what was left of him on a dog and pony show. A few bucks to see the great warrior’s bones. Eventually the state of Iowa recovered the remains and put them on display in a museum in Iowa. Once again, pitching him like some freak show oddity: here are the earthly remains of the great warrior who cast terror across the frontier. Eventually the museum caught fire and Black Hawk’s bones were incinerated: Black Hawk’s final testament to how we consider history and our roles in the worlds we created and the worlds we continue to create.”

We can only wonder how Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak would feel about his Anglicized and contracted name – “Blackhawk” – being affixed to a leading National Hockey League franchise (the “Chicago Blackhawks”) and (without the contraction) to a leading toll of U.S. imperial war and occupation, the Black Hawk Attack Helicopter, today.

Imagine a Budensliga Team Named “The Rabbis”

As the Washington D.C. National Football franchise contemplates a new name to replace its belatedly abandoned and openly racist moniker “The Redskins” (how about “The Lobbyists”?), other major professional sports franchises and their apologists are claiming that no name or logo changes are required for their teams. The insufferable corporate Caucasian sports authority Bob Costas was on CNN the other night proclaiming the Redskins the only such franchise that needs to drop its name in the wake of the great anti-racist George Floyd rebellion of 2020. As far as Costas is concerned, there’ nothing wrong with “The Cleveland Indians,” “The Atlanta Braves,” “The Kansas City Chiefs,” or “The Chicago Blackhawks.”

How pathetic. Here’s an analogy for the Cleveland Indians: a German Bundesliga soccer team called “The Munich Jews,” named after the Jewish population that was almost completely eliminated from Europe by the Nazi Holocaust. (Imagine drunken Munich fans screaming “Lass uns gehen Juden!”).

North America’s so-called Indians – Indigenous First Nations people – experienced by some estimates a nearly 90 percent population decline thanks to the disease and violence resulting from European “settlement.” That would qualify as a genocidal Holocaust.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves, replete with mass mock tomahawk haunts and chants in the stands? Seriously? Imagine German soccer teams named the Berlin Rabbis and the Frankfurt Hazzans, with the crowds mockingly singing “Hava Nagila Hava” during the games.

Name and Logo Lesser-Evilism in Chicago

But what about the Chicago Blackhawks? The Chicago NHL and its white apologists have long claimed exemption from “politically correct” team name and logo criticism their logo is life-like and not the kind of hideous caricature that long befouled the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves’ emblems.

Another Blackhawks public relations defense notes 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.”

The Blackhawks have never promoted anything like the mass Tomahawk chop and chant that have long marred home games of the Florida State Seminoles, the Atlanta 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), and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The Blackhawks are okay, the Chicago NHL franchise wants critics to think. because they aren’t as openly offensive as some other teams. In reality, however, their less heavy-handed appropriation of Native American imagery may be worse than what we see with the Redskins, Indians, Braces, and Chiefs. It makes for a stealthier, more subtle promotion of racist stereotypes and historical offense.

At the same time, the Blackhawks’ mascot “Tommy Hawk” is in fact offensively cartoonish in racialized ways. It merges aviary imagery with time-freezing Indian stereotypes by suggesting the word Tomahawk – a single-handed axe commonly used by Indigenous North Americans at the time of so-called white settlement.

False Honor

What about the name itself? The Chicago Blackhawks’ public relations office has long claimed that their teams’ name and logo are tributes to the bravery and fighting spirit of the great Sauk warrior – a spirit its players seek to epitomize on NHL ice rinks. With pressure growing for the Redskins to change their racist name and their own team name and logo facing new scrutiny along with so much else in the nation’s ethnic culture in the wake of the George Floyd rebellion, the Blackhawks’ front office has announced that it is standing firm. It proclaims that it has no plans to change its moniker and emblem because these “honor” a real life Native American: “The Chicago Blackhawks’ name and logo symbolizes an important and historic person, Black Hawk of Illinois’ Sac & Fox Nation, whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans, veterans and the public,” the team says.

The US military has long said similar things 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.

These names supposedly honor the noble and fierce Native American nations the U.S. armed forces subdued from coast to coast in the 18th and 19th centuries: admirable and powerful opponents America heroically overcame

Curiously enough, 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.

“We are honoring Black Hawk, not mocking or appropriating him.” This, paraphrased, is what Chicagoan Brian Hayes calls the Blackhawks’ “pompous rationale to keep an Indian head as their team logo.”

Respect and honor? Look back at real and tragic history of the Sauk nation. Their white-skinned and blue-coated killers (including future U.S. Zachary Taylor) had little respectful to say about “the savages” they butchered. Their murderers didn’t praise the Indigenous people they massacred 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.

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 also 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, reflected six years ago:

“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…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….” (Washington Post, June 26, 2014).

Imagine the “Washington Fredericks,” the “Los Angeles Zapatas,” or the “Das Simchar Rochems”

As the author Franklin Foer noted ten years ago, “Americans can only give this kind of [false] obeisance because they have slaughtered the Indians.  Nobody is around to object to turning them into cartoon images.” As Foer elaborates:

“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.’”

There are some flaws in Foer’s 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 continues to face denial and disinterest in the US.  And while Jewish Europeans enjoy significant socioeconomic security and privilege overall, 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.

Still, Foer is right to note how American Indian 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 Indigenous First Nations the US military crushed in the 19th century are no longer present to object to the profit-taking appropriation of their onetime images as fighting mascots. Imagine if the former Washington Redskins proposed to change their name from their current openly racist moniker “The Redskins” to “The Fredericks,” replacing their Indian head logo with a fierce profile image of the great 19th Century Black human and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. Would Black Americans within and beyond the nation’s 47% Black capital city feel honored and validated by the proposed name and logo change? Some might but most would not. Legitimate complaints would come from Black leaders and activists decrying the trivialization of Douglass’ humanitarian political legacy. Douglass, Black spokespersons would point, did not rise up against slavery and lead the struggle for Black equality in order to be memorialized on the jersey of a sports franchise in any city, much less the capital city of a nation that continues to inflict multiple forms of oppression on its Black population – a nation currently headed by an ugly neofascist who calls “Black Lives Matter” a “symbol hate.”

Activists would note how disgusted Douglass would be at the extreme and disproportionate poverty, ill-health, incarceration, and police brutality experienced by Black people in Washington D.C. and across the U.S. – and at the terrible toll taken on the National Football League’s 68 percent Black player rosters by the brutal, brain- and body-wrecking sport of U.S. football.

Black Lives Matter leaders would rightly observe that Douglass would have opposed the NFL’s racist blacklisting of the Black quarterback Colin Kaepernick for having the audacity to kneel during pre-game National Anthems in solidarity with Black people killed by U.S. police.

The “Washington Fredericks” would be a no-go.

Imagine if the Major League Soccer team the Los Angeles Galaxy proposed to change its name to “The Los Angeles Zapatas,” putting a fierce picture of the Mexican peasant-revolutionary Emiliano Zapata wearing ammunition beneath a big sombrero on their jersey. Would this be welcomed by the Latinx community in 48% Latinx Los Angeles? Not likely. Legitimate complaints would be heard from Latinx leaders about the trivialization of Zapata’s legacy, the disgust Zapata would have for the special misery inflicted on much of Los Angeles’ large Mexican-American population, and the ways in which the logo reinforced racist Anglo attitudes towards Mexican Americans. The “Los Angeles Zapatas” would not happen.

Imagine, finally, if one of the leading German Bundesliga soccer teams, say FC Bayern Munich, proposed to change its name to “Das Simcha Rotems” to honor the recently deceased Jewish anti-Nazi Resistance fighter Simcha Rotem. Highly organized global Jewish opinion would not stand for that.

Easy Fix

One of the curious things about the Chicago Blackhawks’ version of the problem is that – unlike the Redskins, the Indians, the Chiefs, the Florida State Seminoles, and the Braves, they only have to change their name in a small way. All that’s required is three things: undo the contraction in “Blackhawks,” replacing “Blackhawks” with “Black Hawks;” drop the “Tommy Hawk” mascot; and change their logo from a 19th century Indian head to the bird that Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak was nicknamed after. They could portray a Black Sparrow Hawk descending on a puck like a swopping, goal-hungry power forward.

Meanwhile, of course, the capitalist system – whose advance the non-capitalist North American Indigenous people’s presence all-briefly blocked – is eliminating much of the world and nation’s bird population along with life itself.

Perhaps the controversy over team names could encourage more U.S. citizens to investigate the remarkable success that North America’s original inhabitants exhibited in living meaningfully and beautifully without the savage class inequalities and related relentless eco-cicdal practices of the merciless white savages who cleared and un-settled the continent for the viral and exterminist nothingness of the class rule profits system.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).