What’s in a Name?

In 2015, Bradley Gallant filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario arguing that Mississauga’s Indigenous-themed athletic team names and logos demonstrate institutional racism and promote stereotypes.  A settlement was reached in December 2018, and the City of Mississauga agreed to remove all Indigenous-themed mascots, symbols, names and imagery from all of its athletic facilities.

In 2017, McGill University’s task force on Indigenous studies and Indigenous education issued a recommendation to change their varsity teams’ name within one or two years stating that the name Redmen is discriminatory.  This past April, after months of protesting by students, faculty and staff, the university announced that it will change the name and the varsity teams will have a new name by 2020.

Throughout North America, there is a growing movement to change Indigenous team names and logos at all levels of sport. Here in my hometown, the Point Edward Minor Athletic Association (PEMAA) is considering a name and logo for their beloved Blackhawks. This after the mayor received a letter from the Ontario Human Rights Commission asking all provincial municipalities for a policy review of Indigenous team names and logos displayed in municipal facilities. A week ago, The Sarnia Journal wrote an article, Local sports teams under pressure to change names, about the steps the Sarnia Braves baseball team and Point Edward Blackhawks hockey teams are taking as they consider name changes.  

As these municipalities begin to consult with local First Nations regarding their team names and logos, there are loads of comments on social media about the potential name changes.  Some folks think it is a total overreaction and a complete waste of time, and others believe it is the socially acceptable thing to do. I want to look at it through the lens of truth and reconciliation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Report published ninety-four  “calls to action” urging all levels of government (federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal) to work together to change policies and programs in a concerted effort to repair the harm caused by residential schools and move forward with reconciliation.

I did a little research to better understand the truth here.  Prior to becoming Blackhawks, the Point Edward hockey teams were Redmen. Fifty-ish years ago, when they changed their name and logo to Blackhawks, they used the same logo as the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Chicago Blackhawks.  The Chicago Blackhawks were founded in 1926 and are one of the original six NHL teams. Owner Frederic McLaughlin named the team in honor of his World War I military unit which was nicknamed the “Blackhawk Division.”  

Black Hawk, was a band leader and warrior of the Sauk American Indian tribe in what is now the Midwest of the United States. In the War of 1812, Black Hawk fought alongside the British in an effort to push white American settlers away from Sauk territory. In the 1832 Black Hawk War, he led a band of Sauk and Fox warriors against European-American settlers in both Illinois and Wisconsin.  After Black Hawk was captured by U.S. forces, he and other Indigenous prisoners went on a tour of the country so they could “see the power of the U.S.” and be made a spectacle of.

There is the truth. Black Hawk became a warrior defending his people and his land.  The Americans defeated them and colonized their land, but they recognized him as a great war hero and named a bunch of stuff after him.  As Kevin Gover, Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma says in USA Today’s The real history of Native American team names, “It is an expression of the idea: ‘We, the white people, won — and we can do anything with you and your imagery and your identity that we choose to do.  And that’s a hell of a thing to say to somebody.”

So what does reconciliation look like in this situation?   The Truth and Reconciliation Report explains, “Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.”

Sometimes the truth is hard to get at.  Sometimes it is hard to reconcile ourselves to the truth.  Sometimes it is hard to reconcile with others. Truth and reconciliation are hard, but something as simple as a name and logo change is reconciliation.  It is awareness, acknowledgement, atonement and action – in action.

Along with the loss of a team name and logo, many people are concerned about the loss of their team’s heritage.  If you follow the truth about a team’s name or logo all the way back to the beginning, is it the heritage you want to hang onto?  Is it one that you can be proud of?

In the same USA today article, Gover offers an alternative definition to the word, “Heritage is history with all the bad parts taken out.  It doesn’t feel like an honor when you do not confront the truth of the people you claim to be honoring. They never honor the Native American truth. They are honoring their own notion of heritage, their own non-Indian version of history.””

May we seek wisdom and treat each other with respect as we work towards reconciliation.




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