In 2020, the NFL team based in Washington, D.C. retired its name and logo, the “Redskins”, after years of pressure from American Indian advocates. Now, at the beginning of the 2021 NHL and NFL seasons and the end of the MLB season, four other American professional sports teams still use American Indian names and logos, including the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. At first glance, this name seems innocuous compared to the Washington Redskins, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, or the Cleveland Indians. It could be argued that out of these, only the “Redskins” is an offensive name. Yet the debate around the Blackhawks’ name might actually strike deepest at the heart of the issue—if what seems to be the most respectful of American Indian-derived team names is considered harmful and should be changed, then the others certainly should be.
Amid the height of the 2020 Redskins controversy, the Blackhawks released a statement ensuring that their “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.” And they have a point. Black Hawk, or Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, was a leader of the Sauk Indians in Illinois who lived from 1767 to 1838, fighting against the United States in the War of 1812 and his namesake Black Hawk War of 1832. However, for nearly two-hundred years, Black Hawk has survived as an American hero rather than an enemy in popular imagination. Growing up, I learned little to nothing of Black Hawk or the Black Hawk war in school, but I knew him as the face of our hockey team and the inspiration for a 48-foot tall statue you could see from my grandparents’ living room window in Oregon, Illinois.
So how did a United States enemy of two wars, whose nation was slaughtered along the Bad Axe River by the US military and driven from Illinois, become a hero to both American Indians and white Americans as early as a year after the Black Hawk War ended in 1832? And why is this person memorialized as a hockey mascot? The answer lies in a convoluted historical legacy.
Black Hawk was not completely the noble hero that popular narratives make him out to be, although he came to embrace this role at the end of his life. Among the Sauk, he wasn’t even a chief or a shaman. Black Hawk was just an old warrior who couldn’t return to the place that was the center of his people’s world, who had the courage and tenacity to speak up for his nation.
At the time of the Black Hawk War, Black Hawk was a sixty-five year-old conservative husband and father who had earned a name for himself as a warrior in his youth. He adamantly abided by Sauk traditions. While many of the Sauk, including Black Hawk’s rival leader Keokuk, would rather submit to the unstoppable territorial expansion of the United States and relocate in order to avoid conflict, Black Hawk refused to trust or accept the word of the American government.
In 1804, when American settlement in western Illinois was still sparse, Sauk and Fox leaders signed a document that ceded all their land east of the Mississippi River between the Illinois and Wisconsin rivers to the United States. In exchange, they received $2,234.50 and $1000 of goods annually. The Sauk lived on the move, remaining west of the Mississippi for much of the year, but from planting to harvesting crops in the summer, they lived in the town of Saukenuk along the east bank of the river near current-day Rock Island, Illinois. For over twenty years after Sauk leaders signed away their land, they continued to live there during the summer,
as the US had not yet sold it to private parties. Because the Sauk passed on information orally and did not use writing, the sale was quickly forgotten. When businessman George Davenport finally purchased the land where Saukenuk was located in 1828, US Indian Agent Thomas Forsyth asked the Sauk to fulfill their end of the deal and permanently leave Illinois. Many of the Sauk were outraged. Understandably, they saw another trick by the United States to steal their land. Many American Indians had come to see writing as the Americans’ way of making up anything they wanted.
While Keokuk and a majority of the Sauk agreed to stay west of the Mississippi during the summer, Black Hawk spoke against leaving. Supported by a strong contingency of women, who did most of the agricultural work and did not want to leave their fertile planting fields, and young men eager for a fight, he unexpectedly found himself as the spokesperson of a dissident group of Sauk unwilling to give up the “center of their world,” as historian Kerry Trask calls it. He was pressured into a position of leadership. Through the disagreement and violent conflict that followed, Black Hawk remained somewhat unsure of his actions and reluctant to fight. The old warrior, who had become somber and spiritual in his early sixties, did not want to give up Saukenuk mostly because of reverence for the dead. His father and generations of Sauk were buried outside of Saukenuk.
In 1832, when the Sauk left Saukenuk for the winter, Thomas Forsyth warned them not to return in the summer, or the US military would be there to greet them. Sympathetic to the Sauk, the Winnebago prophet Wabokieshiek made an offer to Black Hawk to live and grow crops farther up the Rock River in Illinois with his people during the summer of 1832. Black Hawk, reluctant to fight against the US military, but also reluctant to show weakness as a leader, did not make his decision clear. His band of Sauk returned to Illinois unsure of where they were going or what would happen. They numbered over one-thousand, with at least 600 warriors. In the end, however, Black Hawk decided to accept Wabokieshiek’s offer and not return to Saukenuk after all. However, a battle-hungry Illinois militia had already been raised. The militia was made up mostly of poor, rural western men, many of whom had an aggressive hatred for American Indians built over decades of violence and distrust. Others simply saw themselves as defending their home against violent attacks. Indian attacks had grown more common as more Americans moved west, and the Sauk were an especially violent and warlike nation. Notably, twenty-three year-old Abraham Lincoln was a captain in the militia.
That is not to say Lincoln or all of the militia men harbored racist attitudes. Virulent racism toward American Indians was common but far from universal, even at the time. Wealthy, educated easterners often sympathized with the Indians, yet their guilt was idle. They continued to buy products made with resources stolen from Indian land and vote for politicians who continued western expansion. These white Americans were some of the first to perpetuate the myth of the “noble savage.” They saw American Indians as perfectly innocent and innately good, uncorrupted by the evils of civilization. While this may seem less demeaning than the other prevailing American view—that Indians were vicious, violent savages—the noble savage stereotype still portrays American Indians as one-dimensional caricatures and primitive savages rather than human beings who are capable of good and bad (think of the Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar—they are the epitome of the noble savage). Many Westerners, on the other hand, dismissed these Easterners as elitists who had never actually seen Indians or
experienced the violence they did. In reality, of course, the violence went both ways. Both the Illinois militia and Black Hawk’s Sauk saw the other side as the perpetrators.
So when the Illinois militia found Black Hawk’s band, and fighting began, Black Hawk did not back down. This encounter vanquished the uncertainty that had gnawed at him for over a year, and the choice was made for him: war. The Black Hawk War was short, bloody, and chaotic. Most of the four months consisted of the militia and army chasing Black Hawk’s band through the wild swamps, forest, and prairie of Wisconsin. There were only four major battles. The war began in Illinois in April 1832 with a decisive Sauk victory over the disorganized and inexperienced militia, and ended in Wisconsin in August 1832, once the official US Army finally caught up to the fleeing Sauk, with the indiscriminate slaughter of most of the Sauk band, including many women, children, and non-fighting men. Black Hawk, however, was not among them. He, Wabokieshiek, a few other leaders, and their families had fled the night before the inappropriately named “Battle” of Bad Axe (it was a slaughter that continued even after the Sauk surrendered) in order to turn themselves in.
After his arrest, Black Hawk was taken East to visit the president, Andrew Jackson, and see the great American cities. US officials thought that this would quell further Indian resistance and please the Easterners who hailed him as a hero. By this point, the war had been in headlines for months and Black Hawk was a celebrity in the United States. Many in the East saw him as the model noble savage. Despite the fact that he had fought against the United States for nearly four months and abandoned his people to slaughter, he was greeted by an enormous crowd of cheering supporters in New York City. Black Hawk had become a highly politicized figure that elicited entirely different opinions from Americans based on their education, geographic location, class, and political beliefs. In New York, they loved him. Yet there had been no notable popular movements to end the war or stop the forcible relocation of American Indians. Trask attests that the white Easterners cheered for Black Hawk because of their guilt at what America was doing, yet took no action to stop it.
This completely performative idolization of Black Hawk continues today. Now, there are more buildings, schools, statues, roads, and banks named after Black Hawk than there are Sauk Indians in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. After Black Hawk’s defeat and tour to the East, the Sauk were forcibly relocated to Iowa. Today, the surviving Sauk nation is split between Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Only the mythical figure of Black Hawk remains in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Like these other uses of Black Hawk’s name, a hockey mascot doesn’t seem like the proper way to remember a real person and his extinct nation. Rather, it perpetuates a narrative that helps white Americans cope with the guilt of their ancestors’ legacy. I’m not saying that Black Hawk does not deserve historical recognition. However, narratives, whether positive or negative, distort history. Black Hawk was neither a hero or a villain, a noble savage or a bloodthirsty warmonger. He was a real person who made both good and bad decisions, who was brave at times and cowardly at times, but did what he thought was right.
If the Blackhawks keep their name and logo, they will continue a long tradition of easing white guilt by remembering Black Hawk as a noble savage. Hailing Black Hawk and other American Indian historical figures as heroes while enjoying the wealth and power of a country built off of conquering their land and murdering their people is deeply ironic and perverse,
especially when American Indians today share a disproportionately small amount of this wealth and power.
Would changing the Blackhawks’ name really do anything to heal this injustice? Probably not. History cannot be changed. However, our perspective and understanding of history can, and Black Hawk is among the most misrepresented American historical figures. Changing the Blackhawks’ name and logo would help American Indian advocates’ ongoing effort to fight racism by challenging stereotypical or offensive representations of the history and culture of real nations. The American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC), the Sac and Fox nation, and many other American Indian groups have clearly expressed their desire for the name and logo to change. In a 2020 statement, the AIC wrote, “going forward, AIC will have no professional ties with the Blackhawks, or any other organization that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.” Though it would not right historical wrongs, changing the Blackhawks’ name and logo would reconstruct a misuse of the historical image of Black Hawk, chipping away at a narrative that justifies idle white guilt rather than represents real events and encourages active change.
Most of all, American Indians should have the power to make the decision, for once in our nation’s history. And it should be the responsibility of the Chicago Blackhawks and other professional sports franchises to listen.
Note: All of the historical information is drawn from Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America by Kerry A. Trask. Trask’s book compiles hundreds of primary sources from all sides of the conflict. The full list of sources is in this book. The quoted statements are sourced directly from the Chicago Blackhawks and American Indian Center of Chicago.