As you may know, I’ve been doing research lately into sports culture and Native American culture and history. The core of this research relates to the ongoing debate over the Washington Redskins name change, and I’ve found news articles arguing both for and against changing the team’s name.
In addition to reading about the news and debates on this subject, I’m conducting field research. I’ve come to view the debate as a clash between two cultures. On the one side are the Native American cultures that have thousands of years of history in these lands, including a long history of racism, genocide, and oppression. On the other side is the modern American sports culture, comprised of fans from various social and cultural backgrounds who are unified by their common interest and participation in a community-building activity. In order to fully understand the conflict taking place, I am trying to study both of these cultures in depth.
In order to study sports culture, I decided I need to go to a sporting event and take part in the activities there. I’ve never been a sports fan; my dad took me to two baseball games when I was a child, and one of my uncles once took me to a football game, and each of these experiences bored me. I never understood the passion, camaraderie, excitement, and bonding that people experience around sports. That means that to me, this culture is a foreign entity, and I’m an outsider.
I’m therefore going to attend a game with an open mind and a notebook in hand, hoping to gain some better understanding of what it means to be a sports fan. The book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” says that understanding and getting close to a culture requires “physical and social proximity to the daily rounds of people’s lives and activities” (p. 2). A researcher needs to immerse themselves within a culture and experience it firsthand in order to report on it. While attending a single game will only be a minor amount of “immersion” into this culture, it should nonetheless be an enlightening experience.
While at the game, I will be making a specific conscious effort to study the fans there, and hopefully I will have the chance to interact with some of them and learn about what drives them. I plan to take a lot of notes, since “Fieldnotes” says that fieldnotes are “the primary means for deeper appreciation of how field researchers come to grasp and interpret the actions and concerns of others” (p. 17). Understanding and interpreting the actions (such as cheering on your team) and concerns (such as fearing your team’s defeat) will be a difficult task for me. I’ve seen people watching sports on TV, and I’ve always been confused when the spectators (both those at home and those visible in the stadium on TV) get up and start cheering and shouting over a certain part of the game. I really do not understand what prompts this reaction, and I’ve never experienced this excitement firsthand.
While at the game, there is also a secondary subject that I will be observing. During my research, I read an article by Amanda Blackhorse, “Why the R*dsk*ns Need to Change Their Name.” Blackhorse’s stance is that the name is racist and oppressive, and she argues that it should be changed. In addition, during her article she detailed her experiences attending a football game between the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs, both of whom have mascots based on Native American cultures. Blackhorse described her experience and specifically pointed out her reactions to the team decorations, posters, and other paraphernalia:
“Meanwhile, we were surrounded by imagery that mocked Native Americans and our cultures, in the form of posters, paraphernalia and even a portable toilet in the shape of a teepee. I did not feel safe. It was an ugly display of hostility and disdain toward my people.”
This is another dimension to the conflict I am studying. In addition to the name “Redskins,” there is an issue regarding the mascot images and how they portray Native Americans in a stereotypical fashion that Blackhorse described as “mock[ing] Native Americans and our cultures.”
I’m not currently able to attend a football game like the one Blackhorse attended (since football season ended several weeks ago). However, by chance it turned out that the hockey game being played in Philadelphia this week is between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now, during my research, I found references to a number of other football and baseball teams with Native American-themed mascots. Some of the other teams were also the subject of controversy, but according to an article I read on CNN.com, “The Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas, Utah Utes and Mississippi College Choctaws have all been granted waivers to keep their nicknames after the respective tribes gave their support to the schools.” I therefore realized that some teams might be more accepted than others. Hockey teams didn’t come up in my original research run, so when I saw that the game being played tomorrow included the Blackhawks, I decided to look into it and find out whether they are also the subject of controversy.
The first article I found zeroed in on the exact question I was asking. The article, “Redskins Rep Asks Why Blackhawks’ Name Isn’t Being Challenged,” was tied in to the Redskins name change, and explained some direct comparisons between the Redskins and the Blackhawks. Both teams have been around for a long time (the Blackhawks since 1926 and the Redskins since 1937). However, the article states that the Blackhawks team is “named after the “Blackhawk Division” of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion of the 86th Infantry Division during World War I.” That infantry division, in turn, was named after Suak Chief Black Hawk. The name was chosen by Frederic McLaughlin, who was a commander with the Blackhawk infantry division. McLaughlin became owner of the Blackhawks hockey team several years after the end of World War I. It therefore seems plausible to consider that since McLaughlin named his team after his own WWI infantry division, there may be more of an argument in favor of the legitimacy of the name. By comparison, several articles I read referred to the Redskins team name as a racial slur, which is definitely different than naming a team after a Suak Chief.
In addition, an article on ABC.com quoted Joe Podlasek of the American Indian Center:
“Podlasek runs that center in Chicago and was instrumental in the fight to get the University of Illinois to bench its mascot, Chief Illiniwek. He says what makes the Blackhawks a bit better is they don’t use a mascot to dance around and, in his opinion, mock his heritage.
In the locker room, players are told not to step on the chief logo, and fans in the stands don’t do a tomahawk chop, like at Braves games in Atlanta.”
Comparing this quote to Amanda Blackhorse’s description of her experiences at a Redskins vs Chiefs game, I see a more complex reason for the lack of controversy over the Blackhawks’ name. Blackhorse described how the mascots of the Redskins and the Chiefs “mocked” her culture. According to the ABC.com article, the Blackhawks don’t do that. Likewise, another article in the Chicago Tribune said that the lack of controversy could be related to “Chicago’s small American Indian community [and] the team’s support of a local American Indian organization.”
After reading all of this, I will be curious to see what it is like to watch the Blackhawks play firsthand. While I might get more of a feel for the culture of the Blackhawks as a team if I attended a game in their home city of Chicago, I still expect there will be Blackhawks fans at the Philadelphia game. So while observing fans in general in order to understand sports culture, I will also be looking out for anything I can learn about the Blackhawks fans, their team, and the way they behave with regards to their mascot.
Though I should note that since I grew up in the Philly area, I am going to be rooting for the Flyers. It’s the principle of the thing.