The Quebec League’s Shawinigan Cataractes have found themselves mired in controversy due to a First Nations-themed marketing campaign, while University of North Dakota fans still lament the loss of the Fighting Sioux name. But history can’t always be written by the winners.
I have no doubt that when the person or group that came up with the Shawinigan Cataractes’ new marketing campaign saw their finished product, they were proud. The images involve three players, including new captain and New York Islanders first-rounder Anthony Beauvillier, in eye-grabbing, passion-stirring dress. But there’s a pretty big issue with how those passions have been stirred:
Voici nos nouvelles images de marque! pic.twitter.com/S3D6TqHE6P
— Cataractes_Shaw (@Cataractes_Shaw) August 5, 2015
As you will note, that can only be described as an allusion to the Cataractes’ First Nations mascot. It’s not going over well on social media and as Buzzing the Net’s Sunaya Sapurji noted, the Quebec League quickly distanced itself from the campaign:
“The league did not endorse nor was consulted on the Shawinigan Cataractes branding,” said QMJHL director of communications Photi Sotiropoulos. “This was solely a team initiative.”
The slogan for the campaign, “Mon Histoire, Mes Couleurs,” actually perfectly illustrates the problem. In English, it means “My story, my colors.”
Powerful stuff. Motivating, especially if you’re a teenaged hockey player or fan of the team. But the story of the First Nations culture that is being referenced in the picture is not the story of the Shawinigan Cataractes. It is a hockey team that, even if they believed they were honoring First Nations culture, does not have any ownership in that realm.
Similarly, the University of North Dakota community is still wrestling with the loss of its Fighting Sioux nickname, which was taken away in 2012 under threat of sanctions by the NCAA. The school was given a window to get both Sioux tribes in the state to sign off on the name, but could only secure the blessing of one.
For the past few years, North Dakota has gone without a nickname and a good chunk of fans would prefer to keep it that way – which in my mind, is a backdoor way of keeping the Sioux name alive. Some famous alumni don’t even mess with subtlety – earlier this week, former UND star Zach Parise said he didn’t like any of the new nickname choices and would prefer a return to the Fighting Sioux.
Is Zach Parise a monster? No, of course not. But again, he’s trying to make a story his that does not belong to him, whether he realizes it or not. Because the University of North Dakota was not founded by members of the Sioux tribe; it was founded by George H. Walsh, a newspaper man and early settler in Grand Forks.
Parise and his teammates may have bled both literally and metaphorically for the Sioux mascot on the front of their jerseys during their time at the school, but they were never massacred by U.S. military forces, nor put in positions of abject poverty, which continues into modern days.
One counter-argument often brought up in these debates involves the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and why that name isn’t considered offensive. But there’s a pretty big difference: when that name was coined, it was a way of taking power over a slur often directed against the Catholic university’s athletes, many of whom actually were of Irish descent.
The vast, vast majority of North Dakota hockey players have no connection to the Sioux people, nor do the majority of Cataractes players in Shawinigan have any ancestry related to the First Nations cultures and communities near their town (not to mention the fact the team was called both the Bruins and Dynamos in the past, with no controversial mascot needed). There are not bears or birds being represented; they are real people with agency over their own narratives.
I understand that it can be hard for some folks to grasp why representing another culture in what they believe to be a positive and heroic light is not cool, but given how little positive imagery we see in the mainstream when it comes to First Nations cultures, I would imagine having a caricature of themselves used to motivate hockey players is pretty low on the list of those affected.
Because the road to what the hell? is sometimes paved with good intentions.