Ottawa TomaHawks pro basketball team drops controversial name in fewer than 12 hours; a victory for Idle No More

Neate Sager
February 27, 2013

If you think Idle No More is accomplishing nothing, then you missed the short life of the Ottawa TomaHawks.

In fewer than 12 hours, public protest apparently convinced Ottawa owner Gus Takkale to abandon the name of the newest franchise in the two-year-old National Basketball League of Canada. The name was rolled out at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday. By midnight, there were already reports the franchise is calling timeout to talk it over and come back with more palatable moniker.

Granted, a fledgling team in a fledgling two-year-old league isn't as powerful or as financially protected from the growing public distaste for the sports industry annexing aboriginal imagery as, say, Washington, D.C.'s National Football League team. It is a win for social progress, make no mistake.

The Ottawa owners wanted the name to make people think of an emphatic slam dunk. A tomahawk dunk, that's a thing.

The only basketball play it brought to mind was someone going to the basket and getting rejected with authority.

No doubt this will make a social media case study. There is a kneejerk, slactivist element to any protest that is registered in 140 characters or less, because it requires little effort and no real sacrifice. That does not mean it cannot help change minds.

A quick check of the scoreboard informs us the showdown how to use aboriginal-derived team names is winding down. The side made up of apologists, the status quo and the 'why is it offensive?' element are losing. In most cases, there is not much that can be said for keeping the name other than the illusion of permanency.

Meantime, it's become something that is viewed as culturally inappropriate. The opposition to the Tomahawks in one Ottawa newspaper poll was, allowing for a 5 per cent margin of error or so, right in line with the opposition in summer 2012 to a youth football team using the same nickname and colours as the Washington 'Pigskins.' In each case, more than 80% of respondents were against it.

Perhaps this shows understanding that even if no insult is intended, there can still be a racist insult. Takkale's straining explanation for the name seemed to acknowledge that and be in denial of same simultaneously. Which just tells you it was untenable in 2013.

"It's not like we're calling it the Redskins or the Braves or anything like that. I understand, we've done our research, fans familiar with the game of basketball will automatically associate the name with an impressive dunking style that many NBA legends made famous... A successful tomahawk slam can change the momentum of the whole game. That's our intention. We've done our research, we've spoke to various First Nations community members about it and they were ecstatic about it. I understand it that it's a tool that was glorified throughout history. But any basketball fan will understand what we're doing, which is to make a strong, tomahawk dunk, which is a symbol of success in the world of basketball.

"There's no intended Native association from our part." (Team 1200, audio)

The obvious responses to that are straightforward: (a) so names that might be received as not as racist should be allowed? and (b) if there's "no intended Native assocation," why was there a need to consult with said group? It's also folly to assume one First Nations group or assortment of individuals speak for all. Agreeing to disagree isn't reserved for anyone.

Persuading a team to change its name, needless to say, does not eradicate the systemic racism against aboriginal people. This story illustrates, however, how Twitter and social media are making the world smaller. And how a thinker and leader such as Ian Campeau (@deejayndn) can create a bigger platform to help people think about the gaps in cultural sensitivity that are still being filled in 2013. Note Campeau, an Ojibway, absolved Takkale and his organization of using a racist name, yet still pointed out it was wrongheaded.

All the best to Gus Takkale finding a uniquely Ottawan/Canadian name for his franchise, which he hopes can average 3,500 fans next season while playing out of Scotiabank Place. The name was ill-conceived, but the willingness to face up to it is refreshing.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to