Hockey’s Stanley Cup is now held by a team with a Native American name. The Chicago Blackhawks triumphed over the Tampa Bay Lightning this week to win the National Hockey League championship for the sixth time. On Thursday a parade honored the team whose logo shows an Indian wearing a feathered headdress.
Washington’s professional football team also has a name referencing Native Americans, and a similar logo—yet the two teams have been received very differently in recent years. Some news organizations avoid saying “Redskins,” a word many Native American groups and linguists consider a slur. In 2014, the federal government revoked the Redskins’ trademark protection, ruling that the name was disparaging.
The Blackhawks face less controversy, and have argued that their team name is not a generic racial stereotype. It honors a real person, Black Hawk.
The team may yet face its moment of reckoning. But it’s worth hearing the incredible story behind the name, part of the vast narrative of westward settlement. That story, in turn, points to a new standard that can help citizens decide when, if ever, to favor sports names with Native American themes.
Black Hawk was a leader of the Sauk people, who were pressured to give up Midwestern land in the early 1800s. A treaty they considered unjust forced them out of modern-day Illinois and west of the Mississippi. Like many Indians who opposed land-grabbing American settlers, Black Hawk sided with the British in the War of 1812.
The Sauks got nothing for their war. In 1832 they tried again to recover land they believed to be theirs, crossing east of the Mississippi. The resulting conflict became known as the Black Hawk War. White residents, including a young Abraham Lincoln, volunteered to fight the incursion.
Black Hawk was forced to surrender. He was sent to Washington, and brought before President Andrew Jackson. The president scolded Black Hawk, but soon ordered his release. Jackson also arranged for him to tour Eastern cities, so that he would see he could never defeat a nation so large and powerful.
Black Hawk became a celebrity on that tour, mobbed by curious crowds. “I ought not to have taken up the tomahawk,” he was quoted as saying in Baltimore. “But my people have suffered a great deal.” President Jackson was touring Baltimore at the same time. The former enemies both attended the same stage show, a popular act called Jim Crow, which featured a white man in blackface. (It was a rather different time.)
The early 19th century did have one thing in common with the modern era: It was popular for white people to appropriate Indian names and symbols. Long before the Cleveland Indians ever played baseball, there was Tammany Hall, a powerful New York City political organization named for a Delaware Indian leader. Its workers were “braves,” and its leaders were “sachems” or “chiefs.” Artists and writers put native characters in novels and paintings. A famous actor of the 1820s commissioned a play in which he took the title role of Metamora—an Indian chief who denounces white men as they kill him and take his land. For some European settlers and their descendants, associating with Indians was part of what it meant to be American.
Once it’s understood that modern sports teams are choosing to follow a centuries-old tradition, it’s easy to see how perilous their choice can be. White settlers began embracing certain trappings of Indian life even while displacing Indians themselves. Indians were dismissed as wandering savages, “children of the woods,” or … redskins.
But it’s also part of the tradition that some Indians became heroes. Black Hawk’s name was given to a military unit in World War I. A veteran of that unit later re-used the name when he started his Chicago hockey team in the 1920s. Still later, it graced the type of helicopter seen in Black Hawk Down. There was also Osceola, who resisted the drive to remove Seminoles from Florida. In 1835 he murdered a federal agent in what today might be labeled a terror attack. But the government later captured him while he was negotiating under a white flag, an act considered so unfair that today counties in several states are named for him, as is the mascot for the Florida State Seminoles.
So which sports names, if any, are tolerable in 2015?
One common standard is simply whether people are offended. That’s the standard that trademark officials applied to the Redskins case. Of course, not everyone will find the same things offensive. Even as the American Indian Movement has organized protests outside Redskins games, team owner Dan Snyder has called the name a “badge of honor.”
A different standard is whether a team can find a native group that approves of the name. Even the Redskins have cited some Native Americans who say they aren’t bothered by that particular word. The Blackhawks have the support of the Chicago-based American Indian Center, which has received grants from the team. But this is tricky. The center’s director, Andrew Johnson, who is Cherokee, told me the center held a town hall meeting where many Indians denounced the team name as racist. He said native culture requires “respect” for those different opinions.
There’s also a public wellness standard: The American Psychological Association declared a decade ago that Native American names and mascots created a “hostile learning environment” for native students. But clearly some teams aren’t persuaded.
So here is a new standard. Do we learn anything from the team name? Does the name teach us anything we want to pass on about this country, its history, and its people?
If people learn the story behind a team name, they can make an informed decision about whether they approve or not. Indians are part of the American fabric, and it’s not automatically bad to include them in pop culture. The Chicago Blackhawks at least have a case to make, even if it’s one that needs to be weighed against other factors.
With other teams, it’s more complicated. The Kansas City Chiefs say they’re named after a former Kansas City mayor whose nickname was “Chief,” but they also use the native image of an arrowhead in their team logo. The Atlanta Braves’ story is awkward. The team is in Georgia, where streets, shopping malls and a county are named for Cherokees, but actual Indians were evicted almost 200 years ago.
Could the Redskins meet the standard?
They’d have to complete a sentence. “It’s important for Americans to think about the word redskin because …” If Redskins fans can complete that sentence and feel proud of it, they’d have a better case for keeping the team’s name.
I asked a Redskins spokesman for the “redskin” story. He pointed out the work of the scholar Ives Goddard, who argued in 2005 that “redskin” was used in colonial times by some Native Americans themselves. They were trying to define the racial difference between Indians and encroaching whites. But the same scholar records the expression used by Indians in an oddly negative way (“I am a red-skin,” one confessed, “but what I say is the truth”), and by whites in a patronizing way (President James Madison referred to “my red children”). It’s not surprising that “redskin” evolved into a word that simply diminishes the people it describes.
Do the Redskins want to hang their identity on that? If so, their name will tell a story that stretches far beyond football, whether their fans want it to or not.
* The photo caption on this article originally misspelled the painter George Catlin’s surname as Carlin. We regret the error.