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"Do what's right": Black Hawk descendant demands Chicago Blackhawks change logo, name

'Do what's right:' Black Hawk descendent demands Chicago Blackhawks change logo, name
"Do what's right": Black Hawk descendent demands Chicago Blackhawks change logo, name 09:40

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The great-granddaughter and direct lineal descendant of Black Hawk – the legendary Native American war leader from Illinois – has denounced the Chicago Blackhawks and demanded they stop using her ancestor's name and image.

"This is an opportunity for that corporation to do something that is truly unique and unlike what other corporations have done before, and that means actually making good on wanting to help Native people and wanting to do what's right," said April Holder, the descendant who's also an Indigenous artist and advocate for Native American rights. "They can change the name, the logo and they can make retribution to my tribe, to my people – to the people that Black Hawk loved so very much."

As part of efforts to trace the roots and legacy of Black Hawk, CBS Chicago tracked down Holder, 40, who lives in Portland, Oregon. She's Black Hawk's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, and is one of only a few remaining relatives. She's never spoken publicly until now. 

Black Hawk's legacy vs. logo

Black Hawk was a war leader and diplomat who fought on behalf of his tribe, the Sauk people, who would later become the Sac and Fox Nation. He fought to try to prevent the United States from taking their land.

Black Hawk lived and fought for his tribe in Rock Island, Illinois. Today, the area is home to the Black Hawk State Historic Site. A museum there displays photos of his family, including a picture of Holder's grandmother when she was a child.

"(The United States) massacred our people there, they massacred women and children there," Holder said. "It's not enough for us to experience genocide, basically. It's like, now we have to take even your names from you. We have to take the legacy of your people away from you."

Holder is getting her master's degree at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and she uses art to preserve Native American culture and history. Her artwork has been showcased in art institutes and galleries around the country. That includes Red Cloud Heritage Center in South Dakota, where a portrait she painted of Black Hawk is part of the center's permanent collection.

Black Hawk's War: A Quest for Peace, 2006, acrylic on canvas, The Heritage Center at Maȟpíya Luta | Red Cloud permanent collection, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Painted by April Holder

According to her family, a portrait of Black Hawk and his son from 1833 is the most accurate portrayal of him.

But Holder said the Chicago Blackhawks contorted his identity into a racist and historically inaccurate image – one that is a generic, stereotyped depiction of a Native American person.

"It's sickening, it's gross, it's grotesque, it's hurtful," she said. "[Black Hawk] was very eloquent, well spoken, and extremely intelligent… he was just a man who wanted to do right by his people."

An 1833 portrait of Black Hawk. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

She described the painful impact of the team using her relative's identity as a mascot. To her and her family, it's exploitation and erasure, she said.

"What this team does," she said, "is it actively creates that narrative that it's just not real anymore, that we're just not real people anymore, that none of the things that happened to us really happened. And it's so hurtful. It's so hurtful when you know it, when you're still living and existing within the government policies that were shaped by it and how that affects your life."

Holder also condemned the team for continuing to use and profit off Black Hawk's identity, despite having never contacted her or her direct family members about it.

"If someone were to come and take your name and use it for something and profit off of it, what is that called? It's called identity theft," she said.

Portrait of Black Hawk
Portrait of Black Hawk, Sauk (Sac), by Homer Henderson, circa 1875, after a portrait by Charles Bird King, 1837. Homer Henderson / Chicago History Museum

"It's very much dehumanizing. The harm they've done to native people, the humiliation they've done to them – all of that is encompassed in that mascot," she said. "To associate it with his name is to literally pick a specific person from my people's history and dehumanize them and reduce them to what - a cartoon? Why is that OK?"

Following the money

Decades of public pressure led other teams to change their names and logos, like the now Cleveland Guardians and Washington Commanders. But the Chicago Blackhawks stood firm in their decision to keep theirs and began a public relations campaign.

In public statements, the team characterized its use of the name and logo as honoring Black Hawk, saying it "symbolizes an important and historic person."

"We celebrate Black Hawk's legacy by offering ongoing reverent examples of Native American culture, traditions and contributions, providing a platform for genuine dialogue with local and national Native American groups," the team said in a statement on its website in July of 2020. "As the team's popularity grew over the past decade, so did that platform and our work with these important organizations."

Instead of changing the logo, the organization – with chief executive officer Danny Wirtz at the helm – focused on increasing the team's initiatives with the Native American community. The team's official website outlines special events at the United Center celebrating Native American heritage, as well as a video that acknowledges indigenous peoples and their traditional homeland.

Holder said she disputes the team's "definition of honor." She believes the efforts like the land acknowledgment are a contradiction if the team continues to profit off Black Hawk's identity. 

"It's just a video, it's still these shallow, ineffective, superficial things people do to seem like they're part of the solution, and not the problem," she said of the land acknowledgment. "But it's meaningless."  

Previously, Black Hawk's tribe, the Sac and Fox Nation, was against the team's use of the logo, and even passed a resolution in 2015 opposing it. As part of its public relations campaign, the team began meeting with the tribe, soon followed by increased initiatives, donations, grants and gifts, CBS Chicago found. The tribe's opposition to the logo would soon turn into support. 

Sac & Fox Tribe 2015 Resolution on Blackhawks by Adam Harrington on Scribd

In 2020, the team hired a Native American consultant, Nina Sanders, to help the team improve their relationships with the community. CBS Chicago first reported how Sanders filed a lawsuit against Wirtz and the franchise last month.

Sanders accuses the team of breach of oral contract, fraud and sexual harassment. She said she began to feel she was being "pushed out" from the organization after she arranged a May 2021 meeting between the team and the tribe. The team denied her allegations.

"I feel abused, traumatized, used," Sanders previously said in an interview with CBS Chicago.

But three months later, in August 2021, the team and the tribe formed an official partnership. The tribe then reversed its stance on the logo and passed a new resolution, proclaiming support of the Chicago Blackhawks' use of it.

Sac & Fox 2021 Blackhawks Resolution by Adam Harrington on Scribd

April believes the team's visit was an effort to "buy" the tribe.

"I think it was to buy. There's no honor in what they're doing. It was to buy it," she said.

Neither the team, nor the tribe, would tell us how much the Chicago Blackhawks have paid them over the years. CBS Chicago used publicly available 990 forms for the team's charitable arm, the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation, to trace the funds. According to the records, the foundation sent at least $600,000 in cash and gifts to the tribe since 2021.

"I feel like when these teams – these corporations – seek out to do these types of things, to find these sellouts, they will look for people who are vulnerable to do that to," Holder said.

Included in the gifts was a $220,000 decommissioned U.S. military "Black Hawk" helicopter, gifted to the tribe by Wirtz and the team's charity. Wirtz was there as it was placed as a monument on tribal land.

Chicago Blackhawks

"Oh, I see a total contradiction," Holder said. "[Black Hawk] waged war against the U.S. government. He fought the cavalry.

"I think that hockey team has unethical practices, and they utilize them," she continued. "I think they did that with my tribal government. I think that they did what's been done to native people throughout history. They handpicked a few people, and they persuaded them through unethical means to get what they want."

The tribe did not respond to CBS Chicago's requests for comment.

Holder said if anyone should have been contacted by the team about using the logo, it should've been her family, the direct lineal descendants.

Branding deemed "blatantly disrespectful"

A statement from the Chicago Blackhawks said the team works "in partnership with the Sac & Fox Nation, the ancestral tribe of War Leader Black Hawk, to honor our namesake's legacy."

"This shared priority joins Nation leaders, elected council members and a formal advisory committee, to help provide collective counsel to guide our organization's action and initiatives," the team said. "We remain committed to genuine dialogue with our partners that further cultivates learning, understanding and opportunity on behalf of the Native American people and their culture."

The team did not respond to a follow-up email from CBS Chicago asking whether they've made an effort to contact Holder's family, the direct lineal descendants of Black Hawk. But if they had, Holder said, she and her family would not have given their approval.

"There are things that are not for sale. The dignity of my tribe, my people, and my ancestor's legacy are not for sale."

CBS Chicago found the use of Black Hawk's identity goes beyond the logo. In 2022, the team partnered with Budweiser and Goose Island Brewing to create a new line of beer, called Blackhawks Pale Ale, with the logo on it. The beer is sold inside the United Center stadium and in stores.

Holder called it "blatantly disrespectful," citing the history of the U.S. government using alcohol to take advantage of Native American tribes. Budweiser did not respond to CBS Chicago's requests for comment.

"[The U.S.] persuaded the men who were chiefs at the time, of our tribe, with whiskey and alcohol, and they got them drunk to sign their land away and take advantage of whatever they wanted," Holder said. "And Black Hawk went and destroyed their whiskey barrels. He busted them up, He told them to refuse that because it was a sickness. And this team has the audacity to put his name on an alcohol product?"

From the team's logo to the Blackhawks Pale Ale, Holder said seeing how Black Hawk's name and image are used continues centuries of pain. She said his identity is "not for a team to use."

"It belongs to our people. It belongs to my family. It belongs to that legacy of the people he fought for," she said. "Black Hawk did not make those sacrifices for some hockey team to exploit and profit off him. That was not what he created a legacy for. He created it so that future generations like my child and myself could exist."

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