Robert Williamson didn’t know what to make of the Chicago Blackhawks at first.

“I don’t understand much about hockey. We’re a football state down here,” the Sac and Fox Nation council member told the Tribune with a thick Oklahoma twang.

The Blackhawks have the same name as a local casino and clinic — named after tribal ancestor Black Hawk. Team representatives from Chicago, who claimed to want to help the Oklahoma community, might as well have been coming from the moon.

“We’re still talking about rural Oklahoma,” Hawks CEO Danny Wirtz said. “So a big corporation going down there, you can imagine there would be distrust. There’s a lot of history of distrust.”

The Sac and Fox took a leap of faith and heard them out. And earlier this month, those talks culminated into a tangible symbol of an alliance: a helicopter.

On July 9, Wirtz, vice president of community Sara Guderyahn and defenseman Connor Murphy traveled to Stroud, Okla., to help the Sac and Fox dedicate a decommissioned UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter during an annual powwow at the tribe’s veteran’s memorial.

The Hawks used their money and connections with the U.S. Army to facilitate what had been a 10-year quest for the Sac and Fox.

“Man, I tell you, the feeling was just awesome,” Williamson said. “To watch them old veterans just smile. They put a smile on them guys’ face.”

The moment carried added symbolism.

“Black Hawk was a member of the Thunder Clan,” he said. “That comes from the air.”

“That’s impact to me,” Wirtz said. “Not just sort of check-writing and PR stuff, but actually seeing someone moved, seeing the needle moved.”

The team doesn’t plan to stop there. The Hawks announced a new partnership Thursday with the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, the descendants of War Leader Black Hawk or “Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak,” who resisted removal from their land in present-day Rock Island by U.S. forces in 1832.

The team and tribe have started work on other initiatives, including language preservation and scholarships.

Williamson recalls telling members of the Hawks: “Our traditions are on life support, guys.”

While some Native American advocates credit the hockey team for the groundbreaking pact and goals, they say it doesn’t change their opposition to the team’s moniker and imagery, which they say appropriates and stereotypes native culture.

And they added a relationship like this actually may perpetuate the team’s use of the symbols and harm the very generation the Hawks and Sac and Fox intend to serve.

“These representations often reinforce stereotypes about native people as peoples of the past and warlike people in ways that, particularly around native young people, that when they’re exposed to them, they tend to foreclose on their ambitions and dreams for making their way in the modern world,” said Harvard professor Joseph P. Gone, a social scientist and enrolled member of the Aaniiih-Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana.

“Let’s Talk Native” radio host John Kane has fought against the use of native mascots by high schools to professional sports teams. While he agrees there have been more derogatory names and portrayals by other teams — the NFL’s Washington team comes to mind — he doesn’t see the continued use of “Blackhawks” as benign.

“The problem is they call themselves the Blackhawks as if that’s not a person, because you put a plural to it,” said Kane, who is Mohawk. “But in the majority of these cases, you have predominantly white people running around calling themselves Indians: Redskins, Braves, Warriors, whatever the case.

“This is a white privilege issue. When white people were using us for mascots, particularly in schools, which is troubling, native kids were ripped from their homes and sent hundreds or thousands of miles away (to residential schools) to have the Indian beaten out of them.

“They were literally tortured or punished for speaking their language or try to maintain or sustain any sense of native identity, while little white kids were encouraged to.”

Wirtz told the Tribune he doesn’t plan to change the “Blackhawks” moniker and colorful symbols — such as the tomahawk and Indian head logo — that some native advocates find objectionable.

Kane posed a hypothetical: “If you wanted to pay tribute, honor, respect to memorialize Black people, how would you do that? What name would you use? What image would you use? And would it be appropriate for a bunch of white folks to run around and call themselves whatever that name or whatever that image is?

“Would you use Crispus Attucks? Rosa Parks? Harriet Tubman? Jesse Owens? If you can’t answer that question, then why would you think you could use native people?”

Can the hockey team really do justice to War Leader Black Hawk — as well as the modern-day issues his descendants care about — while clinging to their mascot?

“Our goal is to have them coexist and to bring meaning to the image and bring meaning to how we carry ourselves and that namesake that I think is unique,” Wirtz told the Tribune from his office at the United Center.

“I won’t comment on how others do it, but for us, can it be something that is a way to bring a positive, educational and learning-based portrayal to the world, to the general white world? It may not be possible, right? It may be crazy but I’d like to try to make it work.”

Guderyahn, sitting across from Wirtz, interjected, “It’s definitely not the easiest path.”

“It’s definitely the path of most resistance,” Wirtz shot back.

“But we have to try,” Guderyahn said.

The Hawks have hosted Native American Heritage Month game nights and featured Native American veterans on the ice, but Wirtz felt previous work seemed “transactional” and wanted to create more authentic relationships.

“We really need to have a learning mindset,” Guderyahn said. “We stopped talking and planning and started listening.”

The inspiration for a different approach to the team’s work on Indigenous issues sprung from Wirtz’s new motto at the time — “Reimagine the potential of hockey” — and an unlikely source in George Floyd.

When Floyd was killed by police during an arrest on May 25, 2020, it set off a social reckoning on many fronts nationwide.

“There was so much reflection going on, we were all in our homes and reflecting on the world around us,” Wirtz said.

Harvard professor Gone, agrees, but felt it may have also created a conundrum for the Hawks.

“I think there has been a shift in the wake of the social reckoning that our society has experienced,” Gone said, “in which it’s more embarrassing for groups that sponsor these portrayals and have to defend themselves to a citizenry that’s a little more outspoken, a little more educated and a little more attuned to these sorts of things.”

The Hawks first reached out to the Sac and Fox in September 2020 and met regularly over Zoom. In May 2021, Wirtz and Guderyahn made their first trip to Oklahoma and had monthly visits during the summer.

“Why now? Why wasn’t it 50 years ago?” Williamson mused. “Sometimes it just happens for a reason.

“I’m glad it has happened. I’m glad we did touch base with each other. So far our goals and priorities, Danny and Sara and the organization have been nothing but good to us.”

The early stages were about the groups feeling each other out.

The Sac and Fox talked about their Sauk history and heroes, including Jim Thorpe, the “Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century.

Tribal members spoke about their displacement from Illinois and Iowa.

“As Sauks, we didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, let’s get out of here and go down to Oklahoma,’” Williamson said. “You hear about Cherokee or Trail of Tears and that story. Well, a lot of tribes have that same story.”

It didn’t take long for the Sac and Fox to share some of the challenges they faced as a community.

“That first meeting we learned there were four fluent Sauk speakers alive at that time. In the world,” Wirtz said. “When you think about language and culture and preservation of culture, to me, that sounded like an absolute emergency.”

The Hawks used their connections to find a native-owned company in Thornton Media that could help develop a language app for young people and teachers who will be trained to speak the language.

Said Williamson: “When you’re marrying the locals, your blood and your traditions will thin. That’s why our language is thinning. Can we slow it down? Yes. … Young people now, they can pick up a phone and do anything with it.”

The hockey team derives its name from the tribe’s ancestral leader, but for the most part, the Sac and Fox have been largely silent on the issue.

Williamson seemed to suggest the tribe has yet to take a position — at least in recent public forums.

“You know, out of 4,000 people (in the tribe), there’s very few people that had anything to say,” he said.

“As far as discussion goes with Chicago about an image or mascot, that was one of the first things I talked with Danny and Sara about,” Williamson said. “And they’re open for discussion. This year we’re just now getting to know each other.

“There are priorities here — health, welfare, education — (that come) before that kind of stuff. But that’s my own (opinion).”

Wirtz added, “In general, it has not been a priority issue when faced with the other things the tribe is dealing with.”

The Sac and Fox are taking a wait-and-see approach based on how the relationship with the team develops.

”We’ll see what it’s in the future,” Williamson said. “Near future.”

However, for many native advocates the name issue is cut-and-dried.

“My alma mater, the University of Illinois, had Chief Illiniwek for a very long time and we engaged in trying to persuade the university to retire that damaging racial stereotype,” Gone said.

“I can’t imagine that a modern tribal nation thinks that a mascot you just described is acceptable. So I would expect that to go if this relationship actually is going to be substantive in the way that they’re talking. It would be good if that kind of mascot goes.”

Wirtz said he “can’t tell people what to think about our imagery.”

“I hope that our intention for our imagery is to continue to honor and respect and to uphold the pride that we have for War Leader Black Hawk,” he said.

“We’re continuing to try to make this work, to try to bring meaning and responsibility to carrying this namesake. I want to make sure this relationship is always going to be based on respect, trust and dialogue.”

For Kane, the Hawks’ apparent conflict of interest makes him question whether they “are the appropriate institution for educating people about native people.”

“I still have a bunch of problems,” he said. “Is ‘Blackhawks’ less offensive than Redskins? Absolutely. Is their logo less offensive than the Cleveland logo was? Yes. But it’s still kind of tokenistic. And it isn’t very accurate. It’s a cartoon, and we’re not cartoons.”

It was a simple gesture pictured in the Sac and Fox News, but it carries some irony.

Wirtz, according to a photo caption, presented “goody bags” emblazoned with Hawks logo to give to the tribal leaders during a May 19 visit.

Teams or companies “usually try to offer these tribes goodies,” Gone said. “Many tribal nations are contending with poverty, limited resources, so goodies can make a difference.”

Gone said when teams portray “damaging racial stereotypes in this day and age, it gets really difficult to justify that. They end up starting to look for such partnerships to see if they can preserve what they’re doing while whitewashing it through a relationship with tribal people.”

Kane agreed: “It still comes down to the idea that Chicago is trying to justify keeping the mascot that they have. … We’re a small population, so offending us has no real cost to it. Offending your fan base does.”

Wirtz insisted the team is doing it “for the right reasons.”

“It has become personal,” he said. “Getting to know real people in the tribe, getting to know people I would consider friends, these are people we care about. I can see where people would be cynical and say we’re doing it for the wrong reasons, but we wouldn’t be devoting the kind of time and emotional energy that goes into these things. It’s very hard to B.S. this work.

“This is not about perfection, this is not about a perfect answer. This is not about appeasing every single person. We understand this lives in a gray space. That’s the hardest thing in today’s culture to live in because people want one answer or the other, but the nature of this work is going to have to be in this space that I think has tremendous potential for good.”

Despite skepticism about their motives, Kane gives the Hawks credit on some level.

“I think some of the efforts (by the Hawks) are notable and noble, but it still never solves the problem,” Kane said. “In fact it perpetuates the problem. Because now it’s like there is a price tag that you pay to make it worth it. If that price is programs or donations to good causes, you can’t get away from the idea that we’re somehow for sale, even though it may be with the best of intentions.”

Up next: A native exhibition opening July 29 at Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, where the Hawks’ AHL affiliate plays.

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Wirtz and Guderyahn plan to integrate more facets of the partnership throughout the organization, such as teaching players about Black Hawk as a small part of the training camp curriculum.

Said Guderyahn: “There are more and more organizations and tribes we can reach out to to begin that exact same process — education, listening and formal partnership, so we’re really excited for the opportunity to engage here in our community, not just in Oklahoma.”

And they have larger aspirations for what they can do alongside the Sac and Fox.

“What we’ve begun to talk to them about is really big things,” she said. “What does it look like to come back to Illinois? How do we support the land repatriation movement? How do we use our voice and platform in really significant conversations?”

Wirtz isn’t worried the Hawks are treading too far into social issues for a sports team.

“Any organization, company, that operates in a community needs to be part of that community,” he said. “We cannot sit in the United Center and ignore the issues that face our neighbors and the issues that are all around us.

“As younger generations continue to come into the sport, they’re going to expect the teams that they follow to stand for more than what’s on the field or what’s on the ice. I truly believe that.”

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