I SHUDDER EVERY TIME the Portland Winterhawk’s bus rolls into Kamloops to play the Kamloops Blazers. On the side of the WHL hockey team’s bus is a large caricature of a First Nations man.
It looks similar to the Chicago Blackhawk’s emblem. Both are likenesses of a Blackfoot man in regalia.
The Blackfoot Nation or Siksikaitsitapi, is located in Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and northern Montana. It is made up of three Indigenous nations of the Kainai, Piikani and Siksika who share a similar language.
The Blackfoot Nation is far from Portland, making it questionable that there is any meaningful connection of the hockey team to the nation. Portland Winterhawks team has appropriated the First Nation’s symbols as its own.
The WHL has a range of team symbols. The Kelowna Rockets have an Ogopogo as a symbol. Kamloops Blazers have fire. There is the Victoria Royals’ lion, Prince George’s cougar, and Vancouver’s giant. In Alberta, there’s the Oil Kings, Hurricanes, and Hitmen. There are Icemen and Blades.
There are no shortage of team names available without using a First Nation as a mascot or using First Nation symbols.
There is no reason Portland needs a caricature of a First Nations man as a team symbol.
In the WHL, it is not just the Portland Winterhawks who have appropriated First Nations symbols. In the WHL, there are also the Seattle Thunderbirds with a totem pole, Spokane Chiefs with a symbolic headdress, and Moose Jaw Warriors, whose symbol is a First Nation in headdress.
First Nations are the only cultural or ethnic groups singled out to be mascots and symbols of teams in the WHL. It’s as if the WHL hasn’t got the memo that times have changed.
In April 2019, McGill University in Montreal chose to end calling its athletics teams the Redmen because of the name is a derogatory slur against First Nations. It wasn’t enough that the name might have had other connotations. A dominant meaning of the name is demeaning to First Nations.
Leading sports journalists now refuse to use the team name of the Washington NFL football team because it is offensive to First Nations.
The American Psychological Association’s former President Ronald F. Levant stated, “These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”
The Portland Winterhawks’ symbol is a caricature of a First Nation. It perpetuates the “proud, silent, drugstore Indian” stereotype. There is no mention of the eons of years when the Blackfoot ruled the plains as supreme buffalo hunters, followed by near extermination with the arrival of the railways, reservations and residential schools. And the ongoing work by the Blackfoot Nation to rebuild since then.
It won’t be easy to change team names, symbols or mascots. But it is not impossible.
In fact, Kamloops’ team was once called the Kamloops Chiefs. The name changed and no one has looked back since.
It’s time the WHL stops using First Nations as mascots and symbols for their teams. Starting with removing the symbol on the Portland Winterhawk’s bus.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.