It’s already been a year of big change for the Portland Winterhawks. In December 2020, a group led by investment banker Michael Kramer and retired Monsanto executive Kerry Preete became the junior hockey team’s new owners. Due to COVID-19, the current season was both massively delayed and greatly shortened: a mere 24 games against the four Western Hockey League teams in Washington, with no road trips to Canada. Portland also had to play its first “home” contest at the Seattle Thunderbirds’ arena in Kent, before finally returning to Veterans Memorial Coliseum on March 26. There were no fans in the stands.
But an even bigger change could be coming. In early March, longtime Winterhawks president Doug Piper began discussions with Paul Lumley, the executive director of Portland’s Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), about how the team might move on from its “Indian Head” logo, which depicts a profile of a Native American wearing a feather headdress and "war paint."
“Retire the Racist Logo/Mascot of the Portland Winterhawks Hockey Team,” was the headline on a Change.org petition started six months ago by NAYA, which more than 4,200 people have signed. Lumley has engaged with the team not only on behalf of his own organization, but also the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable, a group of local tribes, nonprofit tribal organizations and tribal programs.
This is hardly a new issue. The American Psychological Association first called for the retirement of all Indian mascots in 2005, citing research showing that they harm the self-esteem and educational development of Native youth. Local writer and activist Jacqueline Keeler, a Yankton Sioux and Navajo Nation citizen who helped coin the hashtag #NotYourMascot, has spoken out about “mascotry” since at least 2013, including a campaign during the 2014 Super Bowl directed at the football teams in Washington, DC, and Kansas City, as well as about the Cleveland Major League Baseball team. Public schools in Oregon are banned from using Native names as mascots, with some exceptions—a regulation that first passed in 2012, with full implementation in 2017. That same year, the Oregonian published a Winterhawks fan’s opinion piece calling for the team to ditch its logo.
But it took the summer of 2020, with its tide of protest, social justice, and increased racial awareness, to finally begin washing away the intransigence of the white, big-money pro sports world. First, the team that had called itself the “Washington Redskins” since 1933 and had long refused to change either its patently offensive name or Indian head logo, made a sudden and immediate change, playing the 2020 NFL season in generic uniforms as, literally, “Washington Football Team,” while contemplating future options. They were joined by the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos—now temporarily the “EE Football Team”—and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, which had gotten rid of its cartoonish “Chief Wahoo” mascot in 2019, and will drop the “Indians” in 2022.
“Black Lives Matter basically altered the playing field of what we can achieve,” says Keeler. “It changed what was acceptable.”
If those big league teams can do it, certainly a junior hockey team in purportedly progressive Portland, Oregon, can make a change. Especially since Portland’s logo isn’t Portland’s. It is the exact same one used by the NHL Chicago Blackhawks, and for no other reason—though this may be a bit of an urban legend—that the team got a good deal on used jerseys when the franchise moved to town from Edmonton in 1976.
The Blackhawks have thus far refused to change their jersey, claiming that it’s meant to honor its original inspiration, the 19th-century Sauk warrior Black Hawk. In fact, the team was actually named for the US Army’s 86th Infantry Division, which had taken the name as its own.
For Native Americans today, such “tributes” are both trivializing and horrifying, “‘Mascotting’ a Native leader never goes well,” says Keeler. “It’s a tradition based in trophyism, and the celebration of genocidal victory.”
“It's really white privilege, looking down and saying other groups are less than them, and you can make fun of them” says Lumley. For Lumley, who’s an enrolled Yakama Tribal member, this is not a mere abstraction. His husband, Philip Hillaire, a Lummi Tribal member who has phenotypical Native American features—“he kind of looks like [the logo],” Lumley says—used to work in operations at the Moda Center and Memorial Coliseum. Part of the reason he left the job was tiring of the “cheers” and racial taunting—war whoops, “tomahawk chops,” being called ‘Chief’—from Winterhawks fans.
NAYA’s petition was not even the first one directed at the Winterhawks in 2020. That came in July, from Whitney Jacobson. She's a Washington-born hockey fan with enrolled family members in both the Umatilla and Yakama tribes.
“When I first started going to games here in Portland, I was honestly really surprised that a city with the purported reputation of being so liberal—so PC—would have a sports team with this image,” Jacobson says. She loves watching the team, but can’t participate in one of the most fundamental rituals of sports fandom, and especially hockey fandom: wearing your team’s jersey.
“The elders in my family, they find this kind of image to be deeply hurtful and offensive,” she says. “And these are people who grew up on reservations, or were taken away to Native American boarding schools. I felt like if I were to buy a jersey, [I’d be] complicit in the system. That, as a Native person, if I am wearing this jersey, it's OK. Or that it's honoring to people.”
Jacobson addressed the petition to Doug Piper, and also emailed him. The team president emailed back to explain that his front office was in limbo, due to both the pending change of ownership and COVID-19 layoffs. But, he wrote, “I would like to assure you that we have been actively engaged in internal conversations and have been following external discussions regarding the team logo and crest quite closely as we believe it to be a very important issue and a process that should be inclusive of all interested parties.”
At that time, Winterhawks vice president of business operations Kelley Robinett also told Portland Monthly that Piper’s email to Jacobson would be the extent of the team’s comments until it had new ownership. Neither Kramer nor Preete were subsequently made available, but Kramer did discuss the subject during a one-on-one interview in December with KPTV’s Nick Krupke.
“Clearly, we have to think about it,” Kramer said in response to a question about the logo, which was also right there on his black team hoodie. “Clearly, we have to… diligence it and think about it.... So, it’s ironic. It is one of the most loved logos in all of hockey, but we understand that there are others that don’t appreciate it as much. So we’re definitely going to have to look and see what the right thing is for the team, what the right thing is for the community, and make some decisions on that.”
With new ownership in place, employees back at work, and the COVID-transformed season almost underway, Lumley finally got a Zoom meeting with Piper on March 9, eight months after he first reached out by letter, and five months after NAYA posted its petition. A few weeks before that, knowing that the real power behind what happened with Washington’s NFL team was largely due to pressure from Federal Express (which holds the naming rights to the Washington Football Teams stadium), he and the Portland Indian Leaders Roundtable also sent a letter to some of the Winterhawks sponsors and advertisers, which include Toyota, Fred Meyer, Zoom+ Care, and Pacific Office Automation.
After all the delays and seeming resistance, Lumley was pleasantly surprised by how the conversation went. There's been a second Zoom meeting since, and he feels good about the way things have been going. “[Piper] really wanted to get to a space where Natives were no longer being hurt,” he says.
There are the signs the team has long been ready for this day, including an alternate black-and-red “P” logo that has become increasingly ubiquitous, including as the team’s Twitter avatar, in employee email signatures, and for television scoreboard graphics. The Indian Head logo also is nowhere to be found at center ice this year, with the face-off circle instead painted with an entirely different style “P,” surrounded by a rose. The team also unveiled an adidas-designed “alternate crest” and third jersey in March of 2020 that has no Native imagery, just a futuristic-looking hawk’s head.
Jacobson’s and NAYA’s petition both suggested that the team simply start using this jersey all the time, and while the process will be slower and more complicated than that, any new logo or rebrand could ultimately be a big win for the team . A study by Emory University found that when universities with Indian names and mascots made a change, it had no long-term impact on fan engagement, including merchandise sales, and that any fans driven away by such a move were likely replaced by others who had previously been driven away by the former logo.
Based on the heated discussions that have taken place on (where else?) Facebook since Jacobson’s petition, one can expect the team to meet resistance from a portion of its fan base, which is a more conservative (and suburban) demographic than that of the Blazers, Thorns or Timbers. Since the team began talking to NAYA, Piper has still not replied to any inquiries from Portland Monthly. But Lumley describes himself as optimistic. At their second meeting, Piper told him that the owners have responded positively. The two parties were scheduled to have a third meeting in April, with the intent to lay out a firm plan.
“It's really a cultural change, and these things are not done easily,” Lumley says. “I'm not making excuses in any way for the use of this racist logo. But I think at this moment in time, we're actually in a space where change is happening.”
It also doesn’t have to be a total change. In fact, “Hawks” is a frequent name of choice for teams who need to change a racist brand: the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks (formerly Sioux), the Miami University RedHawks (formerly Redskins) in Ohio, the Seattle University Redhawks (formerly Chieftains). Lumley believes the team should not only keep the name, but also the Native American influence—just one that’s more appropriate (and not appropriative). They don’t have to look any further than Washington, where both the Seattle Seahawks and the minor league baseball Spokane Indians have successfully incorporated tribal iconography (the Indians logo is written in Salish characters) into their branding, and made the Tribes feel like they are part of the community and fan base.
Lumley imagines a future where the team commissions a new logo from Native artists as part of the healing process, ushering in a new era of understanding and inclusion. He can envision representatives of the team at a NAYA powwow, where they’d see its logo rendered in some Native beadwork, as is common for the Seahawks. Perhaps there also will be an on-ice ceremony involving the team and the Native community.
And then Whitney Jacobson could finally buy some merch. “After so many years, it would be great to have a design that was specifically for Portland,” she says. “For our Winterhawks.”