Revisiting Chief Wahoo and the Cleveland Indians Nickname Debate


cleveland_indians_logo_-_chief_wahoo_swinging_a_baseball_bat_with_team_name_aroundPerusing through some different blogs for While We’re Waiting last night, I visited UniWatch and just by chance stumbled upon this article written just yesterday about revisiting the Wahoo/Indians nickname issue again. The article by Morris Levin references my article from sixteen months back, where I explored some of my favorite nickname alternatives from the UniWatch article that week from his colleague Phil Hecken.

The most surprising thing to me after writing the last article was that the reaction and comments turned almost completely into a pure Wahoo debate, whereas I was more interested in exploring the alternatives out there while only briefly covering some of my earlier thoughts on the issue. Of course, you don’t get to Step B without Step A, but with talk of a change, I wanted to ask the question of if there were any viable alternatives. I don’t pretend to enjoy getting into deep and heated debates that go beyond sports and have heavy amounts of politics, race, and sociology, because I’m by no means an expert in any of them. More importantly, I don’t pretend to be. I’m a sports guy, and really, I’m only interested in talking about how it affects the baseball club and its fans.

Levin writes:

“I agree with Lammers and King, but I want to be even stricter and stay closer to current team identity elements and baseball history, precisely because taking on a new team name is momentous.

I start with the premise that we as fans attach ourselves in deep and emotional ways to our team’s names and colors. Of course we do, or this site and blog would not exist. This is a real issue at play in Cleveland.

The city of Cleveland itself negotiated to protect and retain the Cleveland Browns team identity and history when Art Modell removed the franchise to Baltimore in 1995. The current Browns claim Jim Brown as one of their own; the Baltimore Ravens effectively began with a clean slate in 1996.”

My primary point is I think fans are entitled to the feelings of nostalgia that would come from losing a nickname that has been with the baseball club since before their parents and in some cases, grandparents, were born. They shouldn’t have to apologize for it. What was the intent of the person who suggested “Indians” in the Plain Dealer naming contest back in 1915? Were they a racist who thought Indians were savages and they wanted their team named likewise or did they think of Indians as noble, honorable, tough, and worthy of a club nickname? Was it only to mimic the highly-successful Boston Braves? Did the sportswriters who made the decision let the the career of Louis Sockalexis enter into some of their thought processes? I’m not sure we’ll ever really know the true intent with all of those people dead and gone. Without anyone left to correctly answer the question, isn’t it at least conceivable that it’s about how we use and interpret Chief Wahoo and the Indians nickname in 2013? Is there anyone out there thinking that by wearing Chief Wahoo or Indians apparel that you are making a statement about the quality of human beings that Native Americans are?

More than anything, the line is drawn for me when people drop the “racist” word to accuse fans, the organization, or wearers of Indians or Wahoo gear of such thoughts or actions. The other side of this debate can get just as ugly and hurtful, with accusations of racism, prejudice, and the devaluing of one’s opinion based upon their own race and the fact that they aren’t a member of said affected race.



You know, Lukas is almost certainly right about one thing in that blurb. It’s a matter of when, because at some point, the outcry will rise to a crescendo and the organization will decide it’s not worth the negative publicity and the constant assessment of climate looming over their heads. It’s funny to me that people think it’s all about what Wahoo or the Indians represents. I’d be as equally frustrated if I was told that it was inevitable that the Cavaliers or Browns needed to undergo a name change. If the Indians had underwent a significant name change in the last generation or were a team that had moved from another city here, then I’d be much more open and willing to change the name. But, the fact remains that the Indians have been the Cleveland Indians for nearly 100 years now. That’s a lot of history to throw out the window. Maybe ultimately the Chief and the Indians nickname are two different ballot items, but we see the meaning and context of things change constantly over time.

Should we throw it out, though, I think it’s just as important to come up with a quality replacement. Picking a cheap or gimmicky replacement will only increase animosity for a team that has attendance issues, trust issues with ownership, and is battling the very real “haves and have nots” situation in baseball. So, Levin suggests the team should go with “Blues” as the new nickname:

“The Cleveland Blues played in the National League from 1879 to 1884; the American Association from 1887 to 1889; and the 1901 American League club started with this name.

Even the local Vintage Base Ball Association club calls itself the Cleveland Blues(and play their home games at League Park, natch). Cleveland Blues meets the Cleveland baseball history smell test. It could even nod in the same direction as the capital city NHL Blue Jackets, and pride in the role played by Ohio in the Civil War.

Renaming the team the Cleveland Blues presents the opportunity to adopt a new uniform set that is immediately classic baseball, and simultaneously unique.

At home, I dress the team in the 1902 all navy uniforms with a white letter C matching the current cap and helmet. They look good at Jacobs Field. I would be happy to see the team wear this cap at home. This uniform would immediately place Cleveland as the only club wearing monochromatic uniforms with a half-button collar jersey. It’s classic and fresh at once.”

How do I feel about this one? It seems plain on the surface. I would have to see what they came up with for a logo. It could be something fairly simple, but there has to be more to it than just a plain blue block C. There are some interesting things to consider though. Ohio would have “Reds” and “Blues” as their baseball teams. Cleveland would have the “Browns” and “Blues”. Sure, the St. Louis hockey franchise has this nickname, but I think enough geography separates the two for this not to be an issue. Levin makes the point of bringing back the 1902 navy uniforms that the team wore this year. That I could get behind. I thought those uniforms looked like a refreshed and sharp version of a classic. The C caps have admittedly grown on me in the last two seasons (I own both the all red and the spring training version with the red crown and blue bill), and I immediately loved the look of the road grays from the outset. The switch to the “C” on the batting helmet seemed like a big deal to me at first, but I’ve almost forgot about it. All that remains of Wahoo is the patch on the left arm of each jersey and the primary home cap.

Looking back to my previous article, I said this about the name simply switching to “Tribe”:

The third and final entry that I’ll highlight is the Cleveland Tribe, submitted by Douglas King. For those who don’t want to get rid of the Indians’ name, this may be a softer blow. I know that I myself refer to our baseball team as “The Tribe” far more than I do “Indians”.Keeping the same established red-blue color scheme that we’re accustomed to may not be the worst decision either. Nothing about “Tribe” has to necessarily be linked to Native Americans. One definition I found online: “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties”

I still feel that “Tribe” may be the best compromise for all involved. The team could keep its colors, most commonly used nickname, and some of its identity. People could informally wear their Wahoo gear to their heart’s desire, and those looking for something to campaign against wouldn’t have a leg to stand on anymore. I could also get behind another nod to the past in “Spiders”.

The name was used from 1889-1899 in Cleveland in the National League. The team won the 1895 championship, and while most will remember the name for the worst record in MLB history in 1899 with a 20-134 mark, the name could get a second chance. It’s a fairly unique name, with the Richmond Spiders of the NCAA being the only one that comes to mind.

In the meantime, I think I’ve reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. The Cleveland Indians at some point in my lifetime won’t be the Cleveland Indians. There are worse things that could happen, so if the team can hold on to a piece of its identity and put a new spin and improve upon their brand, then maybe it’s for the best. I’ll still wear my Wahoo gear without hesitation, much like I still sometimes call the ballpark “The Jake”, and as a fan, without any vile intent in my heart, I shouldn’t have to apologize for it.

  • Guest

    William & Mary went by the nickname Indians until the early 1980s. They also copied the Chief Wahoo logo for about a decade in the 1960s and 1970s, but called him Wampi. They even had a mascot based on the caricature. That school had a similarly long tradition for the nickname dating back to 1916. They also had likewise used the alternative nickname Tribe since 1924 and were able to slowly transition to it officially in 1989. Of course, the alumni who graduated before the name change have their attachment to Indians, but students there since have taken to the new nickname. It would probably be the easiest change for Cleveland too.

  • Denny

    You unironically used the term ‘PC Police’ and clearly have a firm grip of English grammar, so I’m 100% sold on what you’re sellin’, bub. Lead me to white-guy-without-guilt salvation.

  • Steve

    First, I have no idea how this is a response to any of the points I made above.

    But yes, I know that plenty of Native Americans are fine with the term “Indians”. I’m not sure how that affects anything though. The team name is offensive, not because it is an offensive term like Redskins, but because it was chosen as something you didn’t want to turn the corner and find facing you.

    I’ve never said that people are offended by the term, but I completely understand why you want to make the discussion about that instead of anything I’ve actually said. And you’re still hung up on this idea that only people being persecuted can be upset about the prejudice. I can’t even wrap my head around such disregard for your fellow man, and specifically because he’s a different race. So maybe it’s a good thing we’re done.

  • Joshua Paul

    As a Native American (yes, I really am one and I can prove it, unlike Elizabeth Warren), I’m going to keep this plain and simple. I love my Cleveland Indians and I love Chief Wahoo. I really wish my fellow Native Americans would relax about it. Hell, didn’t we invent the peace pipe for this?

    What are we going to do? Tell ND they gotta change their Fighting Irish name for the sake of PC?

    I’m very proud of being a Native American, and I’m very proud to be a Cleveland Indians fan. So really, lets relax about it and enjoy the ball game.

    I still want to see a World Series and a Cavs Championship before I die.

  • Cleveland_Collector

    I worked in New Mexico for about 1/2 a year in 2003. I can honestly say that whenever a person of Native American descent who I was working with found out I was from Cleveland, one of the next 2 or 3 questions out of their mouths was usually whether I was an Indians fan. When I said yes, I would (easily 90% of the time) get a thumbs up or some other sort of affirmation that they were as well. One even went as far as to ask me to bring him back a cap WITH Chief Wahoo on it. My experiences have lead me to believe that an overwhelming amount of Native Americans do not associate the Cleveland Indians OR Chief Wahoo with “racism” or any derogatory stereotyping. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact.

  • Cleveland_Collector

    As an Italian-American, I’ll be on board with the discontinuation of the Indians as the team’s name and Chief Wahoo as the team’s mascot/caricature just as soon as Nintendo changes the names and caricatures of Mario and Luigi to 5′ 11.5″ WASP-ish every-dudes named Roger and Clark.

  • Cleveland_Collector

    Unfortunately, this conversation is as far as one can get from prejudice when considering a racial group. To imply prejudice is to imply that that the team, its ownership, its employees, its fans, etc. have false, derogatory, pre-conceived notions or opinions about Native Americans because of or based on the name “Indians” or the widely beloved caricature of a baseball playing Indian known as Chief Wahoo. They don’t.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    The unwillingness of certain folks here to even attempt to defend the garbage that they publish can be quite striking at times.

  • WFNYKirk

    Let’s talk about garbage….

    I commented several times on this thread and addressed people’s comments. But, in the land of Frowns, only your answers and opinions are valid, and you have to play by your rules or you’re “unwilling”. Some of us don’t live for debate and don’t want to get tied up in lengthy threads and forums like we’re 15 years old all over again.

    The only thing that’s striking is why you continue to frequent this site. I think we’d all be happier if you didn’t, quite honestly.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Kirk: You don’t have to take it so personally. I’ve had garbage ideas before, too. Terrible horrible garbage ideas at least as bad as your ideas about Wahoo. The good news is that I’ve been much better off since I got rid of them.

    You must understand that it’s not at all surprising that you — as a white boy who on one hand feels so strongly about a cartoon that makes native grandmothers cry that he’ll publish a column about how he’ll continue to wear it “without hesitation,” but yet not strongly enough as to bother respond to perfectly well reasoned criticisms of it — would be “happier” if I didn’t frequent this site, so you’re not making much of a point there. But you should also know that the prevalence of bigotry and other ignorance is something I take seriously. And you should really consider the idea that happiness isn’t everything in life. Robertson Davies has a good quote on the subject that you should look up.

    Anyway, it’s clear enough that you don’t want to talk about Wahoo any more than to whine about how inconvenienced you are by the controversy and anyone who wants to call a Jim Crow relic what it is. But if you ever do decide to explain why this cartoon is so important to you that you’d even risk publishing material that makes the world a safer place for bigots and idiots, it would be good to hear.

    And thanks for the linkage. I really nailed it predicting the Jets steep and irreversible decline back in Sept. of 2011, no?

  • WFNYKirk

    First of all, I’m 25 now. I think you can stop tagging me with the line “boy”.

    I’m pretty sure I did respond to the criticisms, Frowns. Maybe it wasn’t up to your line-item standards, but I did respond.

    Happiness clearly isn’t everything to you, but I try my best to remain positive and keep debates like this that you wallow and set up residence in to a minimum. It prevents me from becoming a narcissistic, gloomy person. Perhaps you should try it.

    Making the world a safer place for bigots and idiots…? A baseball logo? OH, THE EXTRAPOLATION!!!!

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Yes, of course, what could a caricature possibly have to do with bigotry? The extrapolation!

    It’s clear that “boy” works just fine here. Thanks.

  • McBone

    So, the Cleveland Negroes, uniform festooned with a Sambo face, would fly for you? The Cleveland Orientals? The Cleveland Mexicans? The Cleveland Jews? If your answer is “no,” you must explain to us the difference between Wahoo and Sambo. If the answer is “yes,” I would suggest you get your head examined as soon as possible.


  • McBone

    There is no debate as to whether the image itself is racist. It is, and it must be jettisoned. The name Indians has to go, too. It is deplorable. I do not believe those who wear Wahoo are racists, but they do display disturbingly poor judgment. There is no defense for keeping the logo. No amount of nostalgia or history can redeem an image that has been strongly objected to, with good cause, since at least the 60s. But if nostalgia and history are your thing, the Spiders, Blues, Naps, Bronchos and Forest Cities are all, if not necessarily good choices, better choices than Wahoo and Indians.


  • WordSmith

    I think you’re lying. If, indeed, you’re Native you’d have stated your tribe & band near immediate, rather than using ‘NA’ repeatedly.

  • WordSmith

    This isn’t 2002; it’s 2014. Things change, things evolve.

  • Joshua Paul

    I am from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Registered and all.

    Careful who you call a liar, WordSmith.