Team nicknames should reflect respect

Blackhawks and Redskins truly are in different leagues in relating to Native Americans

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In the rain, Blackhawks President John McDonough showed up one Sunday last month with his wife, Karen, and management team for a powwow at Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village.

They watched for hours as families dressed in traditional headdresses and moccasins danced and sang as part of the American Indian Center of Chicago's 60th annual celebration. They brought the Stanley Cup, posed for pictures and swapped stories. They talked to Native Americans of all ages about their lives but, of more importance, they listened.

"It was cold, damp and the sky just opened but you could tell they wanted to be there and were genuinely interested in our culture,'' said Scott Sypolt, executive counsel for the center. "Daniel Snyder should take a lesson in cultural sensitivity training from the Chicago Blackhawks.''

Snyder is the tone-deaf owner of the Washington Redskins stubbornly clinging to his team's nickname despite its racist origin for merchandising reasons that help him stay rich. Society evolves. Snyder remains stuck in a past when nobody knew as much about how hurtful a significant part of the population considers the term Redskins.

Why it took until 2013 to address this nickname issue adequately is a worthwhile sociological discussion. Whether Snyder, in this day and age, needs to respond responsibly so the NFL team representing the nation's capital stops using a symbol of racism really is no debate. He does.

Eavesdrop on our national conversation. It includes hot-button topics now that were taboo 10 years ago. Times change and open minds adapt. President Barack Obama reflected that by putting pro teams in Cleveland, Kansas City, Atlanta and, yes, Chicago, on notice in questioning publicly whether the NFL franchise's "attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns people have about these things.'' Similarly, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell shifted his previous stance by declaring the league and Snyder "need to be listening" as calls for change grow louder. Incrementally, that's progress.

A poll released Wednesday by Oneida Indian Nation showed 59 percent of respondents say Native Americans have a right to feel offended by the nickname Redskins. Yet Snyder stays ensconced in his billion-dollar bunker, citing in a recent open letter the emotional feeling "Redskins" evokes and countering with an AP poll from last spring reporting 79 percent of people had no problems with the nickname. OK — but that still suggests 21 percent of people did. Ironically, Snyder's defiance probably drove the issue more than defused it.

"We'll never change the name,'' Snyder told USA Today last May. "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.''

When referring to the Washington football team, perhaps we should consider using R------- like newspapers occasionally do publishing words that offend. Native Americans read the R-word as a slur, every time.

"It represents disparagement and humiliation, a grotesque pejorative,'' said Sypolt, a Cherokee descendant who's one of roughly 150,000 Native Americans in the Chicago area. "If Snyder would take time like Blackhawks executives have to look in the faces of Native Americans to know why there's real pain associated with that, he might understand.''

On a bluff overlooking the Rock River in the city of Oregon, Ill., a 50-foot monument called The Eternal Indian stands. Though it was designed as a composite of several Native American tribal men, some call it the Black Hawk statue because it reminds many of the warrior in the Sauk American Indian tribe in the 1800s. During World War I, Frederic McLaughlin's U.S. Army battalion named itself Black Hawks for the proud Indian. When McLaughlin later founded an expansion NHL franchise in 1926 in Chicago, he decided to call his hockey team the same thing.

The Blackhawks pay homage to an individual. The Redskins nickname essentially honors dishonor.

"There is a consensus among us that there's a huge distinction between a sports team called the Redskins depicting native people as red, screaming, ignorant savages and a group like the Blackhawks honoring Black Hawk, a true Illinois historical figure,'' Sypolt said. "The Blackhawks take initiative, get involved and show through actions they care.''

One day, Blackhawks officials realize the ripple effect from whatever happens with the Redskins could result in difficult discussions about their cherished Indianhead. Until that inevitability arrives, the team will continue to help fund restoration of The Eternal Indian statue and attend powwows amid efforts to educate themselves and their fans better about a nickname rooted in pride, not shame.

"Through a genuine and ongoing dialogue, we continue to learn about the needs of the native people in our community while respecting their culture and traditions,'' Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz said. "We hope that those who are interested in this issue will take the opportunity to do what we have done."

Some professional sports owners get it. You wonder if the one who owns the Washington football team ever will.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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