Commit to not being so fucking PC | Bleader

Friday, February 1, 2008

Commit to not being so fucking PC

Posted By on 02.01.08 at 08:00 PM

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All right, now, let's return to Blackhawks coach Denis Savard's command to "commit to the Indian." For those who weren't paying attention, Savard went ballistic after a 1-0 loss right before the National Hockey League All-Star break last week, and said players need to "commit to the Indian" or they'd be gone. No, it wasn't a suggestion that the Hawks should follow the example of Mahatma Gandhi and shoot for winning the Lady Byng Trophy, but of course a reference to the Blackhawks' logo and team pride, although everything else on this issue is exceedingly thorny.

First, I'm not going to defend Savard's use of "Indian," and neither evidently are the Hawks. Even though you only need to go back to the Wild Tchoupitoulas' great eponymous album of the mid-70s to find those New Orleans Mardi Gras revelers referring to themselves proudly as "Indians," and it's still the American Indian Movement that drives so much work for equal rights, we should all have moved beyond Columbus's bonehead appellation by now. Yet neither am I going to suggest he should have said "Native American." Sorry, but well-intentioned though it may be, "Native American" is just plain wrong in that it doesn't do linguistically what it intends to do. For instance, I can rightfully claim to be a native American, born in Pittsburgh, PA, and for that matter anyone born in Toronto or Sao Paolo could technically lay claim to being a native American as well. It's about time we halted the usage claiming the entire Western hemisphere for U.S. residents alone, and for the same basic reasons -- making language clear, making it mean what it says -- we should discourage the use of "Native American." I prefer "tribal American," with an emphasis on identifying any individual's tribal ancestry whenever possible. For instance, Chief Black Hawk was a Sauk warrior. But, hey, on this I'm just a lone voice in the linguistic universe arguing radical common sense. As for the Hawks, new team President John McDonough, a marketing genius, has made it clear he isn't going near "Commit to the Indian," even as individual fans have it printed on T-shirts that are selling like pretzels and beer at the United Center. But that doesn't remove the team from the unwanted scrutiny brought on by all this, best illustrated by Carol Slezak's column this week in the Sun-Times.

Now, let's get down to the basic points. First, the Blackhawks are not the "Indians," nor the "Braves," nor the "Redskins," named after some generic tribal stereotype or, worse yet, a long-debased racial epithet. In fact, they weren't even named after Chief Black Hawk, but after a group that named itself after Black Hawk. It seems original Hawks owner, Major Frederic McLaughlin, had been in the 333rd machine gun battalion of the 86th Division of the U.S. Army in World War I, a group that called themselves the "Black Hawks" after the Sauk chief who had fought on the side of the English in the War of 1812. (Remarkably enlightened, considering Black Hawk had fought against U.S. forces.) Anyway, once the name was adopted (much like the Black Hawk helicopter, which replaced the Iroquois in the U.S. military, and believe me that was not named after the Chicago theater fire immortalized in a poem by Nelson Algren), it was only natural to use a tribal image suggesting Black Hawk as the logo, and the Hawks came up with a good one. (What were they going to do, put a doughboy on their uniforms? Imagine the Hawks with Poppin' Fresh on their chests.) In fact, almost all the NHL "Original Six" uniforms have been remarkably consistent over the years, and they remain among the most identifiable logos in sports. (I'd say only the Rangers went flat with their diagonal lettering, but it was only natural for New York to suffer some let-down after the Yankees came up with the most elegant, enduring uniforms in sports history.)

The Blackhawks are named after a person, just as the 1832 Black Hawk War is commonly cited as the only conflagration between American tribes and the U.S. government named after a single person, and in that, given the current environment, there is no precedent to knock the logo down. All tribal Americans can unite against Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians, but Florida State has negotiated with the Seminole tribe to maintain their Seminoles nickname, and the deal has been good for all concerned. There were no Illiniweks left to authorize the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Chief Illiniwek, but that mascot, along the way, had made the mistake of appropriating dance moves from an Oklahoma tribe that took offense to having a genuine ritual turned into halftime entertainment, and eventually the Chief had to go. As for Black Hawk, good luck finding a relation to claim misuse of a personal image.

Now, back to the Blackhawks. Their logo is beautiful, powerful, and a source of pride for fans, but let's say tribal Americans insist all such depictions be removed from sport. The Blackhawks are still going to be the Blackhawks; it's just that they'll adopt a bird as their logo, and what's the good of that? Chief Black Hawk was a kickass warrior and went on to fight for the rights and traditions of the Sauk and other regional tribes well into his 60s. He was a proud man fighting against incredible odds, and if that doesn't describe each member of the Blackhawks I don't know what does. The Blackhawks would be well advised to draw on that history as a way of fleshing out Savard's "commit to the Indian" rallying cry, and tribal groups would be well advised to do the same, using the team to tell the actual tale of Chief Black Hawk, which expresses so much of the pride and tragedy of the great American tribes. Me, after doing all this research on Black Hawk, I've resolved to read the man's autobiography, which is still in print -- just as soon as I finish the new translation of War and Peace. For now, this sportswriter is committing the winter to Tolstoy.   

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