Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 4, 2016, and republished on Oct. 23, 2016. It was republished again on Dec. 13, 2020, after The New York Times and Cleveland.com reported the Cleveland franchise was preparing to announce a change to the team’s nickname.
Progressive Field sits about a block removed from a bend in the Cuyahoga — a river name borne from a butchered Mohawk word, a river once so sullied that it could catch fire.
And from those fires came a desire to be clean again. To restore the river to something closer to its natural self.
Baseball will be played there today, this opening day. At Progressive. Progressive. Where a red-faced man will proliferate the stands: Major League Baseball’s most disgusting burlesque, masquerading as a Native American man.
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Thirty years ago this season, the Indians returned this man — Chief Wahoo, they called him — to prominent position. Their primary logo. The move paved the way for this face to star in movies like “Major League,” to become a ubiquitous image smiling from every corner of Cleveland. Despite any recent efforts to force Wahoo into the background, damage has been done.
This regressive problem has only one progressive solution: The Indians (and by extension, MLB) can no longer make money from Chief Wahoo. Each day they do so is an insult. Not to political correctness, but to common decency. To the Native American history they have perverted for profit. To the Native American children harmed, psychologically, by such caricatures.
Set fire to the cartoon, Cleveland, completely, and perhaps you can be clean again.
It’d be easy to echo arguments that have fallen on deaf ears. For example: Would a caricature this gross representing another minority — a Sambo, a Jewish character straight outta Der Stürmer — fly in 2015? Of course not.
But beyond the blatant stereotyping lies a problem that perhaps even the Cleveland fan can deign to consider: The supposed “tradition” and “honor” behind the logo is propped upon half-truths and a history of racism.
And the continuance of that tradition is an actual threat to present-day Native Americans.
Behind Chief Wahoo’s cheeky grin and a decades-old excuse lies a murder scene. Cleveland killed the true story of Louis Sockalexis, the pioneer they painted red — the barrier breaker they’ve since caged inside a caricature.
Sockalexis was a pioneer paraded through newspaper copy like a minstrel made for the curious gaze of Cleveland baseball fans. A member of the Penobscot tribe, Sockalexis was, as SABR notes, the “first recognized minority” to play in the National League when he signed with the Spiders in 1897 — a full 50 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
In good times — Sockalexis wasn’t far from a .400 average his first few months in the league — writers still rendered him into a stereotype. A poem in the Plain Dealer “celebrated” Sockalexis with the concluding phrase: “Wiping all the glaring war paint / off his nasal in a jiffy.”
And we, at Sporting News, were not immune. In April of 1897, our magazine called Sockalexis “a novelty,” “the Red Man,” the “young Indian” who had everyone talking and curious. According to Belt Magazine, his popularity led to local businesses using his likeness — “almost certainly without his approval” — to sell their goods.
Imagine that. A Native American face turned into profitable logo without permission.
In bad times, Cleveland was quick to turn on Sockalexis and use stereotypes to denigrate him. When his batting numbers faded, writers could not address the man’s drinking habits without resorting to Native American stereotypes — as if drinking problems among men at the turn of the century was unique to the “indian.”
Said the Plain Dealer upon his death in 1942 (via Belt): “Flattery and homage turned the head of the aborigine: he fell into bad habits and become utterly beyond the reach of discipline. ‘He was only an Indian after all.'”
More than a century since his last game, defenders of the Indians’ name and logo will point to Sockalexis, naming him as the origin. As if it would honor him. As if it’s kosher to profit by honoring in death the man they mocked and treated as a circus act in life.
It’s a disputed claim, regardless. Some historians suggest the Indians name arose from Boston Braves envy — a team that improved drastically and gained popularity in 1914, the year before Cleveland’s new nickname came to be.
The alternate theory: The name and Chief Wahoo’s grin are not so much a team tradition as a tradition born from the paper of record which covered the team.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer — having already tinged all aspects of their Sockalexis coverage with not-so-subtle racism — seemingly gave birth to both the Indians’ nickname and their redface of the franchise.
In 1998, a paper in the Sociology of Sport Journal revealed the name “Indians” came from a contest held by the Plain Dealer. But they are even more responsible for the birth of a caricature.
Years before Indians owner Bill Veeck commissioned a 17-year-old kid to design Chief Wahoo in 1947, the Plain Dealer had infused its Indians coverage with virulently racist cartoons. Cartoons which clearly inspired several iterations of Wahoo. Cartoons better seen than explained.
Images via Belt Magazine, who did much heavy lifting on this issue.
And from the first mention of “Indians” in the Plain Dealer, Sockalexis is notably absent. According to research dug up by The Wire, the paper announced the name with this lovely headline: “Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They’re Indians.”
“The title of Indians was their (baseball writers) choice, it having been one of the names applied to the old National league club of Cleveland many years ago,” the article explained. The accompanying cartoon featured a caricatured Native American at bat. His name: Heap Big Stick, a combination of racism and double entendre that belongs in the Long Duk Dong Hall of Fame.
You can compare the Plain Dealer’s artwork with the Indians logo over time. The similarities are striking, especially once Wahoo arrives in the 1940s:
The Plain Dealer even, it seems, popularized the use of “Chief Wahoo” as a moniker after giving the nickname to then-Indians pitcher Allie Reynolds, who they described as a “copper-skinned Creek” in 1950.
So if any entity should truly feel beholden to Chief Wahoo’s history, it’s the Plain Dealer. And yet, in 2014, its editorial board called for his removal, admitting the depiction was “racially insensitive.” This is like Rudyard Kipling rising from the grave to apologize for “The White Man’s Burden.” Why, after all these years?
In the Plain Dealer’s own words: “It’s time for a clean break.”
But the break has been anything but clean. It has been slow-coming, and cowardly.
The Indians and Major League Baseball have shown signs, for years, that Wahoo is their racist strain of herpes — a source of shame sometimes tempered, but never gone.
In 1994, the Indians used architecture as an excuse for not moving their neon-colored Wahoo to the new stadium. As Paul Lukas of UniWatch fame has chronicled, the logo has been summarily demoted in recent years, on uniform and team website, alike. And MLB, for years, has avoided putting Wahoo front and center on team-branded products, from video games to special-issue Pop Tarts.
But Wahoo remains because showing signs of sensitivity is more profitable than actually acting sensibly.
The Indians, for their part, offered Sporting News this statement on the controversy:
“We are very cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the conversation — our fans deep, long-lasting attachment to the memories associated with Chief Wahoo and those who are opposed to its use. We continue to research our fan base to better understand their perception and stance on the logo, but at present time have no plans of making a change.”
The team made news Saturday when they “officially” demoted the logo to secondary use, fully endorsing the block C as the main logo.
Meanwhile, the Indians — in 2016, when we still have people shouting “Get off the stage, squaw!” at a girl speaking out against mascots and logos like these — are honoring Native Americans, Sockalexis and Chief Wahoo’s smile by literally selling shirts with his face in the armpit. The armpit.
Translation: “We are not proud of the way we’ve treated you. But we are not willing to stop profiting from the way we have treated you.”
The thing about treating a people like sideshow and sidebar is that they are never given center stage, or the front page, to air their truth. It’s decided for them.
If the Indians (and by extension, Major League Baseball) were truly sensitive, truly cognizant to the history and implications of Chief Wahoo, he wouldn’t exist. Allowing the logo to supposedly fade to the background while simultaneously profiting from its gross caricature is merely a more benevolent and capitalistic equivalent to reservations.
We’ll put you over here, to the side. And continue to trot you out as mascots when we can profit from your culture’s relative silence.
The people so flippantly dismissed by the phrase “and those who are opposed” encapsulate decades of protestors and activists, Native American and not. There exists this false narrative that the Chief Wahoo controversy was borne from the millennial tendency to police off-color language and logos. This narrative is ignorant.
No later than 1972, controversy brewed over Cleveland’s logo. Russell Means — then the director of the Cleveland American Indian Center — sued the team and owner Vernon Stouffer for $9 million and called for an injunction that would cease the use of the Wahoo caricature.
“How long do you think the stadium would stand if it (the team) were called the Cleveland Negroes with a caricature of Aunt Jemima or Little Black Sambo,” asked Means, according to a Sporting News article from February of that year.
Many have followed Means in calling for the cartoon’s eradication. Yet there still remains this tendency for Chief Wahoo’s defenders to claim Native Americans don’t care about the issue. To the point that an Indians fan dressed in redface can look into the eyes of a Native man saying he’s offended, and still doubt him.
You can almost understand the ignorance. Baseball’s most forward-facing Native Americans have, predictably, remained mum on the issue. Jacoby Ellsbury, a Navajo descendent and member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, spoke sweetly and ambiguously to the Boston Globe.
“Not too many things offend me,” he said. ” You can look at it two different ways. You can look at it that it’s offensive or you can look at it that they are representing Native Americans. Usually I try to take the positive out of it.”
Joba Chamberlain, whose father was born on a Winnebago reservation, had even less to say when asked by Yahoo Sports: “I plead the Fifth,” he said.
Kyle Lohse (pitcher and Nomlaki tribe member) politely declined to comment for this story.
This, of course, ignores the legion of Latino players who have indigenous lineage and hail from countries where shades of brown and the European-or-native distinction created caste-system societies.
And it ignores present-day Native Americans, and their children, who we know now are still impacted by stereotypical depictions of their culture, a la Chief Wahoo.
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THE PRESENT-DAY IMPACT
It is easy to see a cartoon and render it meaningless. American history is littered with stereotypical images presented in kid-friendly formats — seemingly benign tools of oppression.
But stereotypes have a negative impact on self-worth, and Chief Wahoo is no exception.
As outlined in a paper from Virginia Commonwealth University, racial stereotypes impacted African-Americans from both directions. Their self-worth was diminished, their reputation in society maliciously shaped, so ingrained it becomes “fact.”
Green noted that “acts of racial violence were justified and encouraged through the emphasis on this stereotype of the Savage (African-American).”
Native Americans, it seems, suffer the same fate.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice and a report commissioned by the Oneida Nation, no minority faces higher rates of violent victimization. Native children are more likely to confront threats and violence than other kids. And Native American women face the highest sexual assault rate among ethnic groups; 70 percent of those assaults come from non-Native American assailants.
The connection to mascots and Cleveland’s logo? Pop culture perception becomes reality.
Michael Friedman, one of the authors of the Oneida-commissioned study, succinctly explained the impact to NPR:
“A series of studies show that if Native Americans are shown images of stereotypical Native American mascots … self-esteem goes down, belief in community goes down, belief in achievement goes down and mood goes down…
“If someone who is non-Native American sees a stereotypical image of a Native American mascot, their association with the Native American community also gets worse.”
At its most granular level, the NPR interview hit at the core of the problem in speaking with a Native American father, who remembered the seven words his son spoke after seeing the Washington logo: “Are they making fun of us, Dad?”
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This study doesn’t stand alone in this conclusion. More than a decade ago, the American Psychological Association called for the eradication of stereotypical mascots and logos due to their damage to the Native American psyche. The American Counseling Association, the American Sociological Association, the NAACP and even the United Methodist Church have made similar calls to action.
In 2014, a report from the Center for American Progress concluded Native American kids had “the worst education outcomes in the nation,” in part because of lowered self-esteem propagated by images like Chief Wahoo.
A 2008 study from Basic and Applied Psychology determined that exposure to Chief Wahoo, specifically, depressed the self-worth of Native Americans, confronted with this cartoon wearing a normally sacred object: the eagle feather, dyed, offered to wounded warriors, according to ESPN.
In 2011, the Journal of Social Psychology published a study that saw exposing Caucasian students to Chief Wahoo led to an association of negative stereotypes to Native Americans.
Et cetera, et cetera.
The upshot, as Friedman noted at Indian Country Today: Suicide rates within the Native American population have risen at alarming rates recently. And at some point, continuing to bombard them with images that damage or demean their self-worth is more than insensitive.
It all, in a sense, circles back to the story of Bella Cornell — the 14-year-old Choctaw girl who stood up to speak against Native American mascots only to have someone try to silence her with vitriol:
“Get off the stage, squaw!”
A more honest version of the contention, “Be quiet; we’re honoring you!”
Cornell’s mature reaction (via Huffington Post) simply and perfectly defined honor for those who would render her culture to a logo on a jersey sleeve:
“My mom raised me traditionally. I know how to treat sacred items, how to treat regalia. To see it used as a plaything is wrong. People aren’t mascots…
“If we give up, it tells them that they won. What happened to me is what happens when you allow racism.”
And once you remove polite euphemisms and see this issue at its core, that is what the Indians are doing: allowing racism. Abetting, funding and profiting from racism. It is marketing, not malice, that drives them, but these sorts of drives all lead to the same destination.
Progressive Field sits on Ontario Street. A street whose name derived from the Huron (or Wyandot) tribe — a people once relocated by the Indian Removal Law, forced to sell Ohio acreage on the cheap and surrender the land they new.
Where Chief Wahoo remains. Demoted, but ever-present. His skin as red as the flames that engulfed Cleveland’s rust-colored river. His history as muddied. His future as intertwined in the battle between commerce and common good.
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