Just after the Chicago Blackhawks captured the Stanley Cup in 2010, hockey fan Anthony Roy created a Facebook page suggesting that the team change its logo from an Indian head, which he considers culturally insensitive, to a bird. On Tuesday, the page had received 357 likes.
Another fan, meanwhile, recently created a page asking the team to dress its players in black sweaters. It had 1,034 likes.
The two pages are a striking illustration of the lack of public controversy over the Blackhawks’ name and imagery. While teams such as the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians face protests, political pressure and legal entanglements over their mascots, Chicago’s hockey team glides along undisturbed.
Observers have numerous theories about why that’s the case, ranging from hockey’s relatively minor status on the national sports scene to Chicago’s small American Indian community to the team’s support of a local American Indian organization. Also, a name such as “Redskins” is widely considered by American Indians to be a racist slur; judging the propriety of “Blackhawks” is a much more subtle and complicated issue.
Without a unifying opinion on the Blackhawks’ symbol, some who favor a change say it has been hard to gather momentum.
"In our small community, the divides become very difficult," said Jolene Aleck, who works with American Indian students in Chicago Public Schools. “Sometimes it’s just easier to go along with what’s happening."
The team’s nickname was chosen by founding owner Frederic McLaughlin, who had commanded a World War I machine gun battalion that dubbed itself the Black Hawks after the 19th-century leader of a group of Sauk and Fox Indians in Illinois.
The tribes had signed over their lands east of the Mississippi to the federal government, but Black Hawk, angered by what he considered the injustice of the treaty, led 1,500 followers back to Illinois in 1832. The move alarmed nearby settlers, historians say, and federal troops and state militiamen arrived to quell what they viewed as an invasion.
That set off bloody skirmishes in which most of Black Hawk’s followers, including women and children, were killed, their bodies often scalped and mutilated. Black Hawk was captured, brought east as a prisoner and displayed before huge crowds. Freed in late 1833, he rejoined his family in Iowa and died in his early 70s five years later.
But like many Indian leaders who met tragic fates, Black Hawk held an allure for white Americans, who saw him as a symbol of courage and nobility. In 1911, Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft completed a 50-foot concrete statue, inspired by Black Hawk, that stands by the Rock River in Oregon, Ill. The Tribune’s account of the unveiling said the statue was “dedicated to a vanishing race.”
Sentiment like that is part of the problem with the use of Indians as mascots, said Suzan Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group.
The typical logo, she said, “relegates native people to a certain time in history that’s not today, and it’s intended to do so. It’s not something that reflects anything that’s current. It kind of keeps us in the backwater of history.”
Her organization has been involved in a longtime effort to strip the Washington Redskins of federal trademark protection for allegedly disparaging American Indians. The matter is awaiting a decision by the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, but legal challenges could still follow.
Harjo said the Blackhawks have escaped similar scrutiny because hockey is not a cultural force on the level of football. But she said national American Indian organizations have called for an end to all Indian-related mascots and that she found the hockey team’s name and Indian head symbol — designed by the original owner’s wife — to be offensive.
"It lacks dignity," she said. “There’s dignity in a school being named after a person or a people. There’s dignity in a health clinic or hospital. There’s nothing dignified in something being so named (that is used for) recreation or entertainment or fun."
Blackhawks Executive Vice President Jay Blunk responded that the team considered its logo to be “respectful and proud.”
He noted that the team developed a relationship with the American Indian Center of Chicago during its last championship season. The team has since posted a short biography of Black Hawk on its website, invited an American Indian veteran onto the ice for the national anthem and supported an effort to renovate the Black Hawk statue in Oregon.
"Both (the team and the American Indian Center) want to use the Blackhawks’ influence to help teach about Native American history and culture," Blunk said.
Joseph Podlasek, the center’s executive director, said the team’s charitable foundation also contributed $60,000 to build a recreation center inside his group’s North Side building.
He said he viewed the Blackhawks differently from teams like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians. The Blackhawks’ costumed mascot is a bird, not an Indian, and Podlasek said that when he attended Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final last week, only a few fans wore face paint and feathers.
"I am OK with both (the name and Indian head logo) as long as the educational process continues," he said.
Robert Holden of the National Congress of American Indians said his group objects to “derogatory” nicknames, though that can be a complicated thing to pin down: The Seminole Tribe of Florida, for instance, supports Florida State University using Seminoles for its sports teams.
But Holden said Blackhawk is a name that should be retired, a view echoed by a namesake of the Sauk leader.
John Blackhawkis chairman of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, whose ancestors had an on-and-off alliance with Black Hawk. He said doing positive things for Chicago’s American Indian community does not make up for a name and logo he considers inappropriate.
"We all do contributions, but we don’t do it for the sake of wanting to be forgiven for something we’ve done that’s offensive," he said.
Changing an established sports team’s brand is not cheap or easy; officials with the Charlotte Bobcats recently said their plan to switch the NBA team’s name back to its original version, the Hornets, would cost about $4 million. The Blackhawks’ logo, named the best in hockey in several polls, would undoubtedly prove far more costly and complex to alter.
But Mike Lewis, an Emory University associate marketing professor who studies the business of sports, recently analyzed the basketball revenue generated by colleges that have dropped Indian nicknames or symbols — a roster that includes the University of Illinois — and concluded that the change had no lasting financial impact.
Lewis acknowledged that the story could be different for professional teams, whose brand images generate intense loyalty, but guessed that few fans would abandon their squads for making a switch.
"I think a lot of times, marketers have this belief that the whole key is to stay on brand," he said. “That ends up making some terrified of change, and I don’t know that it’s entirely justified."
Roy, a Chicagoan who is part of the Ojibwe tribe, loves hockey and roots for the Blackhawks, though he finds their logo irredeemable. But he suggests that given a twist, the name could still work.
His Facebook page — titled “This should be the Blackhawks Logo!” — highlights a mock-up that transforms the familiar symbol into a fearsome black bird, its plumage mirroring the feathers that decorate the Indian head. So far, the page’s comments have been sparse but enthusiastic.
"I LOVE THIS!" one person wrote. “I want to be supportive but I refuse to wear the ridiculous official logo."
Roy said he hasn’t spoken with team officials about making a change but predicted that one would come sooner or later.
"I think people will wake up eventually," he said. “People are getting louder. They’re realizing that wearing someone else’s culture has a negative effect."