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Native American woman who worked as cultural advisor to Blackhawks sues team for sex harassment, fraud

Native American woman who had been cultural advisor to Blackhawks is suing team
Native American woman who had been cultural advisor to Blackhawks is suing team 06:05

CHICAGO (CBS) — A Native American woman who worked for the Chicago Blackhawks is suing the organization and its charity, the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation, accusing them of breach of oral contract, fraud and sexual harassment.

Nina Sanders filed the lawsuit Tuesday night in the Circuit Court of Cook County. In an exclusive interview with CBS Chicago, she said she was brought on to build relationships between the team and the Native American community. But instead, she said she was pushed out.

"I opened doors for the Blackhawks because people wouldn't work with them," said Sanders.

"I felt like they basically used me"

The Chicago Blackhawks confirmed to CBS Chicago they hired Sanders as a contractor in 2020 to help build relationships with the Native American community. Her résumé includes a decade of lecturing and advising organizations like Chicago's Field Museum and the Smithsonian's American Indian Museum.

Nina Sanders Nina Sanders
Nina Sanders Nina Sanders

For decades, sports teams have faced immense pressure to change their mascots, names and logos—like the Washington football team and the Cleveland baseball team, now called the Commanders and Guardians, respectively.

"It sort of continues this stereotype that native people are savages," said Sanders.

But the Chicago Blackhawks kept their name, saying they are honoring Black Hawk—a real Native American person and war leader from Illinois.

Sanders said she had a conversation with team chief executive officer Danny Wirtz before she even accepted the job.

"I told him that it was racist," Sanders said, "that it was offensive because it was a caricature of a real person; a man who actually fought on behalf of his own people and lost so many lives in that process."

In 2020, the same year Sanders was hired, the statue of the team's logo was defaced in protest and covered in paint.

Sanders said one of her first initiatives was to build a relationship between the team and Black Hawk's tribe, the Sac and Fox Nation - which, according to a previous resolution from 2015, had strongly opposed any use of Black Hawk as a logo.  

It was Sanders who arranged a May 2021 meeting with the tribe and Wirtz. She said based on her conversations with him, she believed the team would change the logo and she told the community that too.

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

The team also gifted the tribe a $250,000 decommissioned Black Hawk helicopter, and another $100,000 in grants that year.  

"I think it became clear that there was no intention to change the logo," Sanders said. "I felt like they basically used me."

"I built relationships with my own trusted native colleagues," she continued, "and once they figured out how to do it, they pushed me out." 

Sexual harassment allegations

Sanders is no longer working for the team, and she said it goes beyond her opposition to the logo. In her lawsuit filed Tuesday night, she alleges breach of oral contract, fraud, sexual harassment and violation of the Gender Violence Act, among other allegations. 

"I feel abused, traumatized, used," Sanders said.

In the lawsuit, Sanders said she was sexually harassed in 2022 by a man working with the organization. The lawsuit accuses him of "inappropriate sexual advances," touching her "without her consent", and also of sending her unwanted "sexually explicit videos of him" on Snapchat.

The lawsuit also said Sanders verbally reported two other incidents of women being groped at Blackhawks events by men working with the organization.  

Sanders alleges she complained about all these incidents to her supervisor, the director of the team's charitable arm, the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation. But the lawsuit said nothing was done, and instead the team attempted to silence her by changing her role and moving her out of the United Center.

"I repeated it over and over, and that's really when I felt like I started to get pushed out," said Sanders. "That was the beginning of the retaliation and discrimination."

Lee Jacobson and Nicholas Economakos are representing Sanders.

"They expel her, they fire her, they get rid of her, they terminate the relationship with her," said Jacobson.

The team was warned the lawsuit was coming. In July 2023, Sanders' lawyers sent a letter to lawyers representing the Chicago Blackhawks, saying they planned to sue.

The hockey team's lawyers responded, saying the organization conducted an internal investigation of Sanders' allegations, that found "the alleged incidents of sexual harassment were not disclosed" until after her contract wasn't renewed. 

They also went on to say "there had been…noted deficiencies" in her work.

"They can't even point to a single deficiency in Ms. Sanders' performance," said Economakos. 

Sanders' lawsuit also claims Wirtz, the organization, and its charity committed fraud by misrepresenting their promises about changing the logo and other Native American initiatives, to convince her to take the job. 

"I put my name on the line essentially to help them to do better," Sanders said. 

"I built the bridge, then they threw me off the bridge," she continued. 

Chicago Blackhawks respond

Wirtz declined to be interviewed for this story. Tribal leaders with the Sac and Fox Nation also declined the opportunity to speak with CBS Chicago but provided copies of their resolutions. 

In response to questions sent by CBS Chicago, the team provided what appears to be differing responses about Sanders' employment. Last year, attorneys for the Chicago Blackhawks told Sanders' lawyers she only made the allegations after they chose not to renew her contract. In response to CBS Chicago's questions about this story, the Chicago Blackhawks said they offered Sanders a new contract, but she decided not to accept it. 

The organization provided the following statements to CBS Chicago: 

Addressing our commitments with the Native American community:

Our organizational commitment to Native American communities extends beyond our walls. For more than a decade, the Chicago Blackhawks have worked to deepen relationships and align our efforts with our namesake Black Hawk's ancestral tribe, the Sac & Fox Nation, and other Native American communities. Presently, we engage five formal partners and more than 15 advisory relationships to help guide our programming. This work includes grant programs, collaborative exhibits and installations, language preservation projects, game day materials, our land acknowledgement and resources invested in identifying future opportunities.

As part of these collaborations, community leaders, elected council members and a formal advisory committee help establish our organization's priorities, regularly evaluating our collaborative action in support of the Native American people and their culture. We are as committed as ever to this partnership and look forward to sharing details on upcoming initiatives, their community impact and furthering the education of our fans and the general public.

In response to Ms. Sanders work contract with the Chicago Blackhawks:

From 2020 to 2023, Ms. Sanders assisted the Chicago Blackhawks Native American efforts as an independent contractor, one of many partners and advisors in a support function. As part of her role, Ms. Sanders was asked to support specific initiatives in partnership with the Sac & Fox Nation and other Native American communities. Although the Chicago Blackhawks valued the consulting relationship with Ms. Sanders, the organization had noted operational issues in her work, and had received feedback from external partners that they did not want to continue to work with her. As such, in June 2023, based on specific initiatives slated for the upcoming season, the organization made an effort to extend her contract, with very specific deliverables, commensurate with work and responsibilities needed. Although initially agreeable to the new terms, Ms. Sanders ultimately made the decision not to renew her contract and has not worked with the organization since.

After contract negotiations dissolved, Ms. Sanders shared her frustrations with the organization over the working relationship, and introduced noted allegations, none of which had been shared by Ms. Sanders at any time during her engagement with the Chicago Blackhawks. Notably, shortly prior to her contract ending, Ms. Sanders shared correspondence with Chicago Blackhawks executives, praising the organization for their efforts with Native American communities alongside the leaders responsible for that work.

As a point of clarity, the Chicago Blackhawks have had working relationships with members of the Sac & Fox Nation for more than 10 years. This relationship ultimately led to the formal partnership discussions with Sac & Fox Nation that began in 2020.

In response to harassment allegations made by Ms. Sanders:

The Chicago Blackhawks have a zero tolerance policy for misconduct and take allegations of harassment in the workplace very seriously. In response to Ms. Sanders' allegations, the organization immediately conducted a thorough investigation with the assistance of outside counsel, including interviews with internal and external parties, and review of pertinent materials and digital records. Based on the information available to us, we found insufficient evidence to substantiate her claims. Of note, the persons identified by Ms. Sanders in your question are not, and have never been, independent contractors with nor employees of the Chicago Blackhawks.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Chicago Blackhawks as well as tribal leaders had not responded to CBS Chicago's requests for comment about the filing of the lawsuit specifically. 

At least two of the men accused of sexual harassment in the lawsuit worked for Native American entities that were receiving money the team's charity, CBS Chicago found. On Wednesday, CBS Chicago reached one of the men by phone, Joe Podlasek, who is the founder of the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg. He denied the allegations.

CBS Chicago also tried to reach Chris Boyd, a representative of the Sac & Fox Nation. According to the lawsuit, Boyd is accused of sexually harassing Sanders while working with the Blackhawks.

CBS Chicago tried contacting Boyd, and also sent a message to tribal leaders for a comment, but has not heard back.

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