In Seeking the Center, there’s a scene where Claude is referred to as “Chief” by an opponent:

Good thing you got ol' Chief there to look out for you, eh MacKenzie?

It's not meant as a compliment, either for MacKenzie, who, it is implied, is not man enough to stand up for himself, or for Claude, whom the opponent tries to belittle by referring to him by the racial stereotype “Chief.”

Hockey nicknames are known for their unimaginative-ness, and while researching Seeking, I quickly learned that “Chief” is, or was at one time, the go-to for First Nations/Native American/Métis players of hockey - and other sports as well. According to Don Marks, author of They Call Me Chief: Warriors on Ice, “almost every Indian who played in the NHL or anywhere else has been called ‘Chief' at one time or another.”

Jim Neilson, who played in the NHL in the 1960s and 1970s, told Marks,

I’ve been called Chief all my life, everywhere else I go. In hockey, you know that your teammates were calling you Chief in a friendly, natural sort of way. But then you would play guys from other teams and you knew it wasn’t so friendly. Most of it was just during the heat of the battle and they were trying to throw you off your game and you just ignore it.

Stan Jonathan, Mohawk/Tuscarora NHL forward from 1976-1983, said, also to Don Marks,

They called me Little Chief and I didn’t mind that. It was when they called me ‘wahoo’ or ‘F#$%’n little Indian’ that I didn’t like [it]...

Judging from Neilson’s and Jonathan’s comments, the context of the name-calling could influence players' feelings about it. But also, as Jonathan indicates, the term “Chief,” while intended to isolate, belittle, and ridicule a person on the basis of race, might have been different, in some sense, than other slurs.

Year in Nam is Leroy TeCube's memoir of the year he served as a G.I. in Vietnam. (I also wrote about it in an earlier post.) Like Jim Neilson and Stan Jonathan, TeCube, a Jicarilla Apache man, was given the nickname “Chief” by his "teammates," i.e. the soldiers in his platoon.

When I joined the platoon it consisted mostly of white GIs, followed by blacks and Hispanics. I was the only American Indian. Someone asked, ‘What race are you? You look like an Indian.'

TeCube describes how he discussed his tribal affiliation with the guys, until finally one of them says, “In that case we’ll call you ‘Chief.’” TeCube answers him, “In my traditional way the title of chief is earned and shown respect.” He then recalls: 

Most of the guys would call me Chief from then on, although a handful of individuals called me by my real name. Up until that moment throughout my training no one even suggested calling me Chief. I wondered why that was so. Perhaps because as trainees we were used to being treated as animals and were addressed by our last names. Now here in Vietnam everyone had an identity. 

Regardless of how the name was intended, TeCube chooses how he will take it - he re-appropriates it - and throughout his service in Vietnam he works hard to live up to the name “chief” and what it means to him and his traditional beliefs. He writes:

I also thought of my new responsibility from my Jicarilla Apache way...the short translation of Nahn Tahn is leader. A more indepth translation, however, describes it as someone who is also an orator. He tells his people what happened in battle or what is about to happen to them next...being Nahn Tahn was something to be feared. Only the very strong took on the responsibility. One had to set a good example and ensure that the needs of everyone in his group were met before he thought of himself. He must never be corrupted or gain wealth from his position. The main criteria were that he never retreat in battle and he show a lot of courage. He had to be the first one into a conflict, and if need be, he would fight single-handedly with an enemy leader…

Towards the end of his time in Vietnam, TeCube recalls “meeting a fellow soldier who was Navajo...as we talked I realized he was also a leader within his platoon and was also called Chief. This gave me a good feeling, knowing that another individual lived up to the name.”

Finally, TeCube is awarded sergeant’s stripes. He writes: 

That day I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I never expected to be a sergeant when I entered the army. Now I had orders in my hand stating just that. I also knew that I had earned the rank….It took a little time before I got used to being called sergeant or sarge. Some called me Sergeant TeCube. Most of the time I still went by Chief or Sergeant Chief. This had more meaning. According to my traditional beliefs, I had now earned the right to be called Chief.

TeCube - along with all of his platoon-mates - quickly recognizes the futility of the Vietnam War, but, having no choice in the matter, he takes it as an obstacle to overcome, just as he takes the moniker given to him, "Chief," as a personal challenge. And while I didn't know about TeCube and hadn't read his story when I was writing Seeking, I like the way that, without knowing it, the player who calls Claude "Chief" unwittingly points to certain facets of Claude's character and aspirations, facets that don't come to light until later in the story. Claude feels that he has little choice but to play what he thinks of as "this white man's game," and while, like TeCube, he is certainly aware of racism and the obstacles it places in his path, he soldiers on, keeping his identity, self-respect, and dignity intact.

Comment