The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sent shock waves through NFL circles Wednesday with its cancellation of six federal trademark patents for the name “Washington Redskins”. The league’s Washington franchise and its widely-loathed owner Dan Snyder had for years been in the crosshairs of critics who demanded the team change its name from Redskins; Snyder steadfastly threw out lame excuse after lame excuse for not adopting a different team name, but the ruling laid bare the core reason a change was long overdue.
“We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the Patent and Trademark Office wrote in its decision.
It’s expected Snyder will appeal Wednesday’s ruling, but he and those who defend the Redskins’ current moniker are standing on a rhetorical ice floe surrounded by heat lamps. It is but a matter of time until he’s forced to admit the battle is lost. That said, the focus on the Redskins name has led to others wondering why the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks aren’t facing similar questions, critiques and demands for change.
The answer is they shouldn’t. The Blackhawks name isn’t drenched in hate and the unspeakably horrific treatment of Native Americans as the Redskins name is. Chicago’s NHL team got its name in 1926, when owner Frederic McLaughlin decided to honor the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion of the 86th Division of the U.S. Army; McLaughlin had served in the unit, whose members called themselves the Black Hawks as a tribute to the Sauk Indian chief who fought alongside the British in the War of 1812.
The Redskins’ name, on the other hand, has undeniably racist, murderous roots. Comedian John Oliver provided a tremendous evisceration of Snyder and the Redskins on his HBO series “Last Week Tonight”:
More importantly, the Blackhawks (who had the two words melded in 1986) have never indulged in the kind of cartoonish portrayal of Native Americans we’ve seen in other sports. Chicago has no equivalent to the grinning buffoon that adorned the uniforms of baseball’s Cleveland Indians. To the contrary: the Hawks’ logo is a straight-ahead profile depiction of a Native American. The team’s mascot is a hawk. Neither their official fight song nor their goal celebration song contain any references to Native Americans. They’re not baseball’s Atlanta Braves, who encourage fans to participate in “tomahawk chop” chants or arm gestures.
Now, you can make a larger case arguing for the elimination of any type of cultural appropriation – and certainly, that discussion is taking place on a number of fronts, including the music industry – but lumping in the Blackhawks with other franchises whose names have a Native American connotation oversimplifies the matter.
There are valid concerns with North American society’s understanding of and respect for Native American issues and those shouldn’t ever be dismissed simply because we like the looks of a logo or uniform (and make no mistake, the Blackhawks jersey is consistently raved over by media and fans alike). However, there are also degrees of inappropriateness and we need to properly prioritize which targets deserve the most disdain and immediate attention.
In that regard, the Redskins’ name is at one end of the spectrum. The Blackhawks’ name is at the other end.