Tag Archives: culture

Searching the Present for Signs of the Past

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been engaging in research lately with a focus on learning about the connections between the past and the present. I’ve learned that there are a lot of things I just haven’t been exposed to, such as some of the less savory aspects of this country’s history, as well as many present-day issues that are ignored by the media and the general public. Oftentimes these ignored parts of history are directly connected to the ignored political issues of today. For example, our schools here in New Jersey fail to teach students that the lands we’re living in today originally belonged to the Nanticoke tribe. My research has shown that while they lived here for thousands of years before us, they began losing their lands not long after European settlers arrived, and they still struggle with this issue today. As early as the 1700s, the Nanticoke were restricted to reservations in Delaware and New Jersey, and in more recent times, the tribe is still struggling with issues like state protection of their lands, property tax issues, and pollution.

onlooking_horowitzIn addition to learning about specific political and civil rights issues, I also wanted to learn about how to see more signs of the past right here in the places I live and work every day. It occurred to me that there could be issues right in front of my eyes that could connect to things from the past. So I took a step back from examining specific issues in order to learn how to look at what is around me. The inspiration for this exploration is Alexandra Horowitz’s book, “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.” In her book, Horowitz takes walks around her familiar city blocks with various experts, including her dog (who “saw” through scent and thus introduced her to a new way of seeing the world), a geologist, a bug expert, an expert on typography (who could tell her a lot of things about a building’s history just by the type of font used on the building signs), a doctor, and even a blind woman. After traveling with each expert, Horowitz found her mind opened to new ways of seeing the world around her.

Along those same lines, my hope was that being guided by an anthropologist might give me some insights into understanding how the world can be seen when you understand the connections between the past and the present. I contacted the Rowan University Anthropology Department, and I was put in touch with several professors who work in the Museum of Anthropology at Rowan University. The museum is brand new, having only just opened in 2012. I was taken on a tour of the museum’s collection by Maria Rosado, Rowan professor and one of the museum’s curators. I asked her to explain the museum’s artifacts to me so I could understand how they can serve as evidence of the past.

Most of the collection included bones and skulls from humans and various other species. Some were real bones, while others were plastic and plaster replicas made from the originals that are kept in other museums. Professor Rosado explained that original artifacts are always kept in museums near the place where they were discovered. I found this to be an interesting fact in relation to my Native American studies; just as many people wish to remain in the lands where their ancestors lived, it seems that anthropologists believe in keeping fossils and artifacts near their place of origin. The artifacts on display at the museum included replicas from Clovis, New Mexico, from the La Brea Tarpits, and from various other places around the world.

When I first asked what could be learned by studying these bones, Professor Rosado told me one of the main uses is forensic anthropology, which she called “The study of corpses as evidence.” Markings on the bones, for example, can indicate the cause of death, such as from a bullet wound or a stabbing. She also explained that the bones alone can tell a researcher a great deal about who the person was when they were alive. The shape of the skull can indicate sex, the size of the teeth can indicate whether it was an adult or child, cranial sutures can tell age, and the shape can even identify race. Individual physical characteristics can also be determined, such as by measuring the bones to determine the person’s height.

We then began looking at some of the animal fossils on display. I asked Professor Rosado what we could learn about human history by studying animal bones. It turns out that there is a lot we can learn. First, she showed me a fossil of an ancient horse skull, and she explained that horses were extinct in America for about 10,000 years. In fact, it turns out that American horses lived here for millions of years, and some that traveled across the land bridge to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Present-day zebras are descended from those horses that originated in America. The horses that remained in America, however, died out as part of the mass extinctions that came as the planet grew colder and many species were unable to adapt. Horses were then reintroduced thousands of years later, when Europeans brought them here during the colonial period. Other examples included the American Mastodon, the Giant Beaver, the Giant Armadillo, and the American Lion. While most of these species are extinct today, they were alive when the ancestors of Native Americans first came to these lands, and they would have been hunted by those original inhabitants of the country.

This led to us discussing the evolution and migration of human life. Professor Rosado explained that current evidence suggests all human life began in Africa. She also sat that National Geographic has been tracing genetic mutations to compare populations to determine where people came from geographically. The oldest known human skeletons were found in Ethiopia, and date back 120,000 years. Genetic tests on ancient fossils, however, can do more than just tell us where people came from. They can also show a connection between present day humans and their ancestors, by tracing DNA. Professor Rosado explained that DNA comparisons between fossils in Africa from 50,000 years ago have been matched with the DNA of people living in the same region today, showing that those people are descendents of the land’s original inhabitants. Along those same lines, it is possible to test DNA to show the connection between Native Americans living here today and their ancestors who inhabited these lands for 10,000 years.

After speaking with Professor Rosado, I had a second guided tour by Rowan Professor Jared Schultz. This tour went beyond the Museum of Anthropology and took us out onto the campus itself. The goal was to see what we could find around campus that could be connected to the past. Specifically, we were looking for anything that could be connected to Native American history and culture.

We walked around the campus on  a warm spring day, which was conducive to an open and exploratory stroll. The first thing that Professor Schultz pointed out was the trees. He pointed them out as an artifact of cultural ecology, and as a renewable resource. He also explained how Native American tribes of the northeast cultivated the land through the use of what he called “slash and burn agriculture”. He explained how they would burn down trees, shrubs, and undergrowth in order to simultaneously clear and fertilize the land. This not only kept areas cleared of undergrowth to make plantation easier, but at the same time the burned plant life created nutrients for the soil.

Professor Schultz then pointed out the overgrown plant life that covered the campus just off the cement walkways we were walking along. Several of the trees were overgrown with vines that were choking them and stunting their growth. Professor Schultz explained that when the lands were cultivated with slash and burn agriculture, that kind of overgrowth wouldn’t have occurred. The overgrowth was made worse by the introduction of invasive species, which are often brought in for aesthetic purposes without proper consideration for the effect they will have on native plants. In fact, Gloucester County, NJ, where Rowan University is located, is home to 163 different invasive species of plants. Some of the invasive species commonly found in New Jersey include English Ivy, which was first introduced to the United States by European immigrants, and which can often be found growing over walls and choking tree trunks.

While we were examining the trees, Professor Schultz also pointed out the tree trunks and drew my attention to their bark. “We’re looking at the presence of Native American culture that’s not being used anymore,” he explained. The bark, it turns out, was once used in the building of wigwams, longhouses, and wattle and daub houses. Different types of bark would have been used for different purposes: birch was used in the construction of wigwams by the Algonquin, elm was used in the construction of longhouses by the Iroquois, and wattle and daub houses were made with rivercane and wood by the Cherokee. Other types of trees would be used in making other tools or canoes, depending on the type of wood.

After examining the plant life, we also toured some of the campus buildings. While we didn’t find many examples of Native American art, culture, or architectural influences, one modern thing that Professor Schultz did point out was the Rowan Lacrosse team. Lacrosse, he explained, was originally invented by Native American tribes. It was played as far back as 1100 AD, and it was introduced to European settlers in the 1600s.

At the end of the tours, I was left with more questions than answers. These connections, from DNA to plant life to sports, are just some small examples of the connections between the past and the present. What was most interesting, however, was how those connections can be found in such simple things that are right in front of our eyes. Hopefully, in the future I’ll be able to learn to look at such things with new insight. It takes a lot of deeper digging to learn all of the facts and details behind such things, but knowing where to look in order to ask the right questions is the first step.

Past and Present Oppression

As you may know, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into Native American culture. I’m about to start working on an article based on what I’ve learned so far, which with any luck will end up being published somewhere in the near future. In the meantime, I’ve still been exploring different avenues of research and trying to make connections between them. A few weeks ago, I attended the Native American Voices exhibit at the Penn Museum, and then I had the privilege of speaking with an official representative of the Nanticoke tribe in Delaware. These experiences, combined with the reading I’ve been doing, have led me to want to learn more about how issues of the past are connected to the present.

Initially, I made some connections between past and present issues of oppression. Native Americans have been oppressed in the past and are still oppressed today, and a lot of the reason has to do with the way history has depicted them. For example, in elementary school, my class learned about Native Americans in the 1600-1700s, in relation to colonial history in the United States. What we learned back then has three major issues. One, students are only taught about Native Americans from a colonial perspective, so almost nothing is taught about Native American history and culture before the Europeans arrived. However, there are thousands of years of history that go back long before Europeans ever came to these lands, and that history is far more vivid and deep than most people are taught. I’ve begun learning a bit about it by reading the Book of the Hopi, which combines Native American history and mythology with present-day archaeological research to tell a detailed account of the lives of Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans. This book is just one small example, but it represents an entire ignored area in our education system. If the depth of Native American history before the colonial period were taught in schools, then their culture might not be ignored as much as it is today.

The second issue in this education is that it only depicts Native Americans in ways that are easily stereotyped and which tell us nothing about their real culture. For example, children are taught about the First Thanksgiving, but the typical depictions have led to us having a certain inaccurate image that persists in our cultural awareness.

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

This image, however, has been described as not only inaccurate, but as being based on a story that is completely made up. Furthermore, it presents an image of Native Americans that isn’t accurate to who they are today. We don’t think of modern day Americans as still being the same people as the pilgrims that first came here in the 1600s, but many people still view Native Americans based only on these images from the past. This leads to issues like the #NotYourTigerLily debate over the  selection of white actress Rooney Mara to play the role of Tiger Lily in the upcoming live-action Peter Pan remake. In addition to protests over casting a white actress in a Native American role, there are protests against the very use of the Tiger Lily character, based on the argument that she portrays a stereotypical view of Native American women that is harmful and offensive. This view ignores the reality of modern Native American women by depicting them as a caricature rather than as people (imagine, by comparison, if modern day white women were still viewed in the images of their Puritan Protestant pilgrim ancestors). By contrast, many online activists have been posting pictures showing what real, present-day Native American women are really like, such as in this photo posted by online activist Jacqueline Keeler.

The third issue, which stems in many ways from the first two, is the complete lack of education about the present-day struggles of Native Americans. In addition to the mascot debate I’ve been researching, and the #NotYourTigerLily debate I just mentioned, Native Americans still struggle with many issues that are ignored. For example, 28.2% of Native Americans are living below the poverty line (and on reservations, that can increase to between 38% to 63%). By comparison, the National Poverty Center reports only 15.1% of Americans nationwide living below the poverty line (it is also worth nothing that the NPC  page linked here includes subsets for the poverty statistics of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, but doesn’t mention Native Americans). Another issue related to the media portrayal of Native Americans is that Native American women are twice as likely to be raped as women of any other race in America. One explanation for this is that Native Americans are viewed as a “conquered people,” and media portrayals of Native American women (such as in movies like Peter Pan) depict them as weak, vulnerable savages that are submissive to white men. This portrayal leads to them being more likely targets for aggressive and violent criminals. There is also the issue that many of the assailants are never prosecuted, and tribal courts often lack the legal authority of their own when state and federal courts fail to act.

These and many other present-day issues are often ignored by the general public, and awareness of these subjects seems to be low. At least part of the blame for this lack of awareness surely stems from the lack of education in mainstream schools. The schools I’ve attended, from elementary school through high school and college, educate students about plenty of other “current events” issues, including the gay marriage debate, copyright laws in the digital age, healthcare reform, and the wage gap between genders. My classes have been invariable silent, however, on any issues related to Native Americans.

While exploring all of these issues, I became very aware of my own blindness and lack of understanding. I therefore sought out the assistance of experts who could better understand the relationship between the past and the present. This is the core concept of Anthropology, which is defined as “the study of humankind, past and present.” To learn more about this, I contacted a group of Anthropology professors from Rowan University, two of whom were kind enough to take the time to assist me in my research. My next post will explore what I learned from them as I attempted to open my eyes to seeing beyond the world right in front of me and into the connections with the past.

Pre-Online-Interview Prep, Sports Culture

I’ll be continuing with the posts about my Ethnographic Hockey field research soon, but in the mean time I’m also making preparations for some interviews in order to learn firsthand from some people on various sides of the ongoing debate about racist sports mascots. I’ll be conducting a total of four interviews over the course of the next month, with the hope of learning a lot about various views. You can already read about the in-person interview I conducted with an avid sports fan, and the telephone interview I conducted with a representative of the Nanticoke tribe in the Deleware Valley.

The next interview will be conducted online. The purpose of this post is to lay out some of the specifics of the upcoming interview. I’ll be discussing the purpose of the interview and the background behind it. Then, after the interview is complete, I’ll be writing a follow-up post talking about how it went compared to these expectations.

This online interview will be conducted via Twitter. I chose Twitter because it’s the online medium I am most active in, and I’ve had some success in the past getting good feedback from people on there. I also find it to be a very effective back-and-forth medium. Despite what people say about the 140 character limit, I find Twitter extremely useful for holding extended conversations. My goal with this interview is to hold a chat (perhaps an hour long) and let the conversation flow where it will. The book PostModern Interviewing suggests that such an active back-and-forth style of interviewing will help construct the communicative reality that myself and the interviewee are operating under, and the interviewee will be “a productive source of knowledge” (p. 74). What this basically means is that the interview itself will be “producing knowledge.”

My goal, therefore, essentially translates into not just a “question and answer” session where I’ll be trying to gain information from the interviewee. Instead, my hope is that our ongoing conversation will open new ideas in both of our minds, prompting us to consider topics we previously hadn’t thought of. I may also raise some of the points others mentioned in my previous interviews in order to ask the new interviewee’s perspective on them.

I’ll also be keeping the interview dialogue open to allow the interviewee to speak from various different points of view. Another important point in PostModern Interviewing is that the standpoint of the interviewee can shift, between, say, them speaking from their point of view as a sports fan, to speaking from their point of view as a male, to speaking from their point of view as an American, and so on. I want to keep the interview as open as possible to allow for the possibility that various different standpoints will come up, and I’ll make note of those when considering the responses.

As for the more concrete details: The first interview I’m conducting will be with Alexander Pierce. I’ve known Alexander on Twitter for some time, and he was eager to share his views when I first started discussing my research into sports. He is a self-professed sports fan who frequently tweets about his team affiliation and other related topics. When I went to Twitter asking for volunteers to discuss sports culture, he heartily volunteered.

The interview will be conducted over Twitter, and if you’d like to follow it, I plan to tweet under the hashtag #HRSI for “Hockey Research Sports Interview” so that the tweets will be easily searchable for later compilation. Also, using a hashtag is a good way to make sure the Twitter 140 character limit won’t be a real issue; any time we go over and need to continue on another tweet, it’ll simply show as a series of tweets on the hashtag. This should also make it easy to follow the interview by searching the hashtag and reading from the bottom up, making for a natural transcription process that will aid later review. I also plan to take screenshots of the tweets, since I will likely be directly quoting some of them later on (possibly using Storify as a medium).

In addition to “sports culture” as a general topic, I hope to discuss things like the controversy over Native American themed mascots, fan/team self-identification, and how sports is related to national and cultural identity (for example, Alexander’s team is the “Toronto Maple Leafs” and the maple leaf is also the symbol on the Canadian flag, so there is a possible connection there).

The interview will be conducted later tonight, April 1st, at around 9:00 PM (assuming Alexander doesn’t tell me it was just an April Fool’s joke!), and will take place entirely on Twitter. Follow me @CantrellJason or check the hashtag #HRSI to see it.

Ethnographic Hockey, Part 1: An Orange and Black Philadelphia

As part of my ongoing research into Native American culture, sports culture, and racism, I decided that I needed to go to a sporting event. My purpose in going was to make sure that I gain some kind of understanding about what sports mean to people and the role sports play in people’s lives. With the ongoing debate over the names of teams like the Washington Redskins (which some people argue mock Native American culture and others argue honors them), I feel that it’s important for me to get to know sports culture in order to understand the perspective of the people who say that their teams are part of a longstanding tradition.

On Tuesday, March 18th, I attended the Flyers vs Blackhawks game at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. I tried to go in with an open mind. I’d never been to a hockey game before, and my previous experience with live sporting events had been sharply limited. My dad took me to two baseball games (Phillies vs Pirates and Phillies vs Expos (the Montreal Expos, I have since learned, are now renamed the Washington Nationals)) when I was a kid, and I don’t remember much of anything about them. One of my uncles took me to an Eagles game, and I only remember that it was really cold. Then, as an adult, I once took a girl to a New York Giants football game because she was a football fan and I wanted to impress her (it didn’t work). Attending a hockey game on this occasion was helpful because it is a sport I’m completely unfamiliar with (thus allowing me to enter with as few preconceptions as possible), though the fact that both football and baseball were out of season had a lot to do with the decision.

I bought my ticket online, after a fair bit of confusion navigating the ticket purchasing website. I eventually found that those attending the game can select whichever seat they like from an interactive stadium map that shows where each seat is located, how many seats are already empty or filled, and the seat’s position relative to the rink. I chose a seat in the mezzanine level (because those were the cheapest tickets), at a position I thought would give me an adequate view of the game: Section 222, Row 13, Seat 18.

I printed the ticket from my computer at home, though there is also an option to pick your tickets up at the box office.
I printed the ticket from my computer at home, though there is also an option to pick your tickets up at the box office.

I left early, wearing my NaNoWriMo hoodie and carrying my fieldnotes book in my pocket. I brought two pens, just in case. Which is a good thing, since one of them ran out of ink before the game even started. I ended up taking quite a lot of notes during the following five hours.

Excuse my poor handwriting.
Excuse my poor handwriting.
I filled up nearly the whole 180 page notebook.
I filled up nearly the whole 180 page notebook.

My goal during note-taking was to capture as much as I could about the people, their behavior, the way they talked, and the reactions they had during the game. However, I also spent a lot of time looking at the environment, since a stadium is a very unique setting not quite like any other.

I arrived at the Wells Fargo Center at 6:00 pm. I paid $16 for parking (which, I should note, is actually cheaper than the $21 parking price at the Penn Museum, which is only a short distance from the stadium). I noticed an advertisement for 1-800-Lundy-Law on the front of the parking lot ticket booth. When I first entered the parking lot, my initial reaction was confusion. There were parking spaces all around, but most of the lots were blocked off by barriers and orange cones, while lot attendants in neon orange vests waved the cars forward and directed us elsewhere. Uncertain where I was being led, I followed the line of cars in front of me until we circled nearly the whole building. Eventually, I was waved into a parking lot and found a spot. While the complexity of parking was at first confusing, it later became clear that it was a necessity. During the game it was announced that 19,932 people were in attendance, and with that many people, the parking situation could easily have descended into chaos without the aid of stadium employees telling us all where to go. The stadium has a maximum capacity of 21,660, which means it doesn’t get much more packed than it was that night (in fact, the announcement made on the JumboTron called it a “sell out”).

Upon my arrival in the parking lot, I already saw dozens of people dressed in orange and black clothes, hats, and jerseys. While not a hockey fan, I’m familiar enough with the Philadelphia Flyers to know that orange, black, and white are their team colors. I initially spotted only a few people wearing Blackhawks jerseys, which wasn’t surprising, since the game was taking place in Philly.

I took a few minutes while in the parking lot to just observe the area. The first thing I noticed was that there were several stadiums clumped together all in this same area. From the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Center (which, according to banners hanging on the side of the building, hosts games for the Flyers, the Wings lacrosse team, and the 76ers basketball team), I could see the nearby Lincoln Financial Field (home of the Eagles football team), and the Citizens Bank Park (home of the Phillies baseball team). I have always found it curious that all of the stadiums in Philadelphia are named after banks. It also leads to frequent name changes when banks undergo mergers. Just as customers of those banks find the name of their local branch changed, the Wells Fargo Center has changed names from the CoreStates Center to the First Union Center to the Wachovia Center, before settling on its current name. Yet the name is much more than a simple identifier: the original CoreStates bank paid $40 million in 1996 to get naming rights of the stadium for the next 21 years.

Before leaving my car, I took note of where I had parked. A sign on the nearby lamppost said this was section “D3,” and below that was a Toyota logo. I mused about the significance of parking in the Toyota parking lot of the Wells Fargo Center, remembering how I’d paid for parking at the “1-800-Lundy-Law” ticket booth. I then headed up to the stadium.

More people wearing orange and black continued to pass by me. An announcer spoke over the speakers overhead, telling me that “1-800-Lundy-Law welcomes you to the Wells Fargo Center.” The same announcer warned me not to buy tickets from scalpers and said that they would not be accepted at the ticket booth. It occurred to me later that the term “scalpers” is a potentially offensive one. My earlier research into sports and racism brought up a news article about a Sonic Drive-in sign referring to scalping, which read “‘KC CHIEFS’ WILL SCALP THE REDSKINS FEED THEM WHISKEY SEND – 2 – RESERVATION.” The sign was later taken down after multiple complaints were issued, and Sonic issued a formal apology. However, there is a certain disparity between using the term “scalping” to refer to sports teams like the Chiefs and the Redskins versus using it to refer to ticket resale.

I continued onwards, and reached the main entrance to the stadium. In front of the entrance, five tall flagpoles stood in a row, the flags on top of each flapping lightly in the breeze. I looked up and examined each of the flags. One showed the logo for the Philadelphia Wings, the next the logo for Comcast Sportsnet, the next the 76ers, then the Flyers, and finally the American flag.

I stopped and considered the meaning of this for a moment. The flags representing the sports teams were hung alongside the American flag, at the same height, depicted with the same significance. It seemed to be symbolic of the position sports played in the lives of Americans. Sports are, notably, considered a national phenomenon in many ways. Baseball is called the “National Pastime.” ESPN has a program called “SportsNation.” And as noted earlier, the Canadian-based team the Montreal Expos was later moved to Washington D.C. and renamed the Washington Nationals. The Nationals’ mascot is Screech, a bald eagle, and many of the team’s logos are red, white, and blue, with stars.

Image Credit: SportsLogos.net
Image Credit: SportsLogos.net

The significance of a team’s mascot and logo seems particularly important. As I noted in an earlier post, the Blackhawks team name and mascot are based off the original team owner’s World War I infantry division, something which holds a lot of historical and cultural importance. And while the Philadelphia Flyers have no actual mascot, their team logo is a stylized “P” representative of their home city of Philadelphia. The name “Flyers” was chosen because “it captured the speed of the game and went well phonetically with Philadelphia.” The design of the logo also incorporates a wing to represent speed, a circle at the center of the “P” that represents a hockey puck, and a sweeping stick shape on the back end of the “P” that looks like a hockey stick. The combination of these factors blends the concepts of “speed,” “hockey,” and “Philadelphia” into a single image. It’s easy to see how this would help fans from the Philadelphia area identify and associate with their team, feeling a connection between their own status as Philadelphians and their hockey team.

Image Credit: GoodLogo.com
Image Credit: GoodLogo.com

The Flyers aren’t the only Philly team to have a mascot or logo that forges such a connection. The Philadelphia Eagles use the bald eagle, which is also the symbol found on the Great Seal of the United States.

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

This seems particularly significant when considering that Philadelphia was the original capital of the United States, from 1790-1800. Philadelphia is also one of the oldest cities in America, founded by William Penn in 1682. It’s a city that has played an important role in our colonial history.

Image Credit: hoopsmanifesto.com
Image Credit: hoopsmanifesto.com

This connection between the Philadelphia sports teams and Philadelphia history is also seen in the logo of the 76ers. The Sixers are named after the year 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Their logo, like the Washington Nationals, includes red, white, and blue colors, along with a circle of thirteen stars in the same design as the first American flag.

I turned away from the line of flags and into the stadium, pondering the cultural significance of these connections. I had already encountered a great deal of symbolism and history, and the game hadn’t even started yet.

This story will continue in Ethnographic Hockey, Part 2: Autographed Jerseys and Buy One Get One Hats.

Post-Hockey Game Musings

I got back from the Flyers vs Blackhawks game just a little while ago. I took extensive notes while there, and I plan to write up a long blog post soon (probably tomorrow) detailing the entire experience.

It was educational, I’ll give you that.

Since the “scene” will be written tomorrow, I want to use this blog post to reflect on my own experiences as a researcher, compared to my museum trip and my bookstore practice research. Self-reflection is an important part of the learning experience with this research project, and I feel like it’ll be helpful for me to get my thoughts down now while they’re fresh.

In my previous research posts, I mentioned more than once that I didn’t interact with enough people, or observe enough about their behavior. Well, during the hockey game, I spent the majority time observing nothing but the people. I spent about the first hour just wandering around, checking the lay of the land, studying the stadium and watching the fans as they mingled before the game. Then the next four hours after that was focused almost entirely on personal interaction, dialogue, body language, and everything I could learn about sports culture.

My primary focus in studying the language and behavior I observed was to try to understand what made sports so important to all the people attending the game (19,932 of them, according to an announcement made over the JumboTron). In the book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes,” the authors said that the purpose of an ethnographer is to “understand and write about what [the culture’s] experiences and activities mean to them” (emphasis theirs) (p. 16). Therefore I attempted, to the best of my ability, to do as the book said and “capture and preserve indigenous meanings.” I did this by recording everything I could about each event (say, the moment when the Flyers or the Blackhawks scored), the fans’ reaction to that event (cheering or booing, accordingly), and what happened in the following moments (when people near me discussed the play that just took place).

Some of it was, frankly, difficult and nearly impossible for me to understand. There were quite literally moments when the fans around me cheered or booed and I looked around in confusion thinking, What happened? The moments that I thought would prompt a reaction rarely did (for example, several times the players got close to the goal in what I would have thought was a tense moment, and the crowd was silent). Then, the crowd would cheer for something I couldn’t understand or process (such as when a player hit the puck all the way across the rink . . . and it just hit the wall and nothing happened). Since I couldn’t understand the meaning behind the reactions, I simply recorded them to the best of my ability.

Another point worth noting is that I talked to several people, asking questions about their team-clothes (such as one player’s autographed jersey), their team affiliation (one woman was wearing a Philadelphia Phillies (baseball) cap and a Chicago Blackhawks (hockey) jersey), the rules of the game (there are three periods of 20 minutes each, as opposed to basketball which as four periods of 15 minutes each), and the significance of the players activities on the rink before the game (a warm-up session which was followed by the Zambonis then by the actual game starting). I learned a lot of information just by asking questions, which is something I noted as a serious weakness of mine in my previous research outings.

All in all, it was an enlightening experience. I’ll be posting more details about it soon. Oh, and the Flyers won 3-2 with 4.2 seconds left in overtime (which I was told makes this a “good game” because it “makes for better drama,” and “there is nothing like it“).

I’m Going To A Hockey Game

My first ever ticket to a hockey game.
My first ever ticket to a hockey game.

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.