I have spent a lot of time and energy in my life defending Chief Wahoo. In many ways, I love Chief Wahoo. It’s an image that reminds me of my youth, of my mom and dad taking my brother, sister, and I to a game every year. It reminds me of talking Tribe with my late grandfather. It reminds me of Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Charles Nagy, Jim Thome, and Sandy Alomar Jr. It’s a sacred image for many fans of the Cleveland Indians.
I also believe that it’s time to put Chief Wahoo out of his misery and remove the image from any association with the baseball franchise. The sooner the better.
My change in stance on this issue has been a slow one, but it really picked up speed in recent weeks. Things really started to change with the Indians’ recent playoff game against the Rays. The TBS crew at one point aired a shot of a group of Indians fans who had painted their entire faces red with an enormous, exaggerated white toothy grin.
Of course, Twitter immediately erupted with claims of racism. The Twitter account @MLBmeme posted a meme specifically for that occasion:
— MLB Memes (@MLBMeme) October 3, 2013
Which, predictably, lead to a large segment of Indians fans feeling insulted and fighting back. Which created an uncomfortable environment all around, as some slighted Cleveland fans pushed the envelope on taste and class in defending what is perceived as a racist icon. Some fans are more than capable of discussing this issue in a mature, articulate way without resorting to shock tactics 1 . Unfortunately, the loudest and most publicly passed around examples are less tactful.
And that’s where my opinion is beginning to change. I’m not sure I totally agree that Chief Wahoo is 100% overtly racist (we’ll get into this more in a second). But if Chief Wahoo is representing Cleveland baseball as a whole, the message being sent from fans is speaking for Cleveland baseball as a whole as well.
I saw something that 92.3 The Fan posted to their Facebook page on Wednesday. An American Indian group called The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) recently published a poster with the Indians hat next to a couple fictional baseball hats. One for the New York Jews and the other for the San Francisco Chinamen. Each hat features a caricature of their ethnicity in a similar style to Chief Wahoo. And each logo is immediately identifiable as an offensive icon. It makes a strong statement that made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
Of course, any discomfort I felt was quickly surpassed by what I saw in the comments to that Facebook post. The first comment I saw said “I would buy all three of those hats.” That comment has 17 ‘Likes’. A little further down, we get “Personally I think the Native American community has bigger fish to fry than this, like poverty, alcoholism, and suicide rates.” That one has 4 ‘Likes’. Then there’s the comment that asks “Where can I get one of those Jew hats?” and 2 ‘Likes’ for that one.
There’s plenty more of your typical Wahoo defenses. People are quick to bring up the Fighting Irish, the Celtics Leprechaun, etc. This isn’t the time or the place to compare the plight of Irish Americans vs American Indians, but it’s a meaningless comparison regardless. This discussion is solely about Chief Wahoo and its image. And we can debate whether the name ‘Indians’ was chosen to honor Louis Sockalexis or not. But Chief Wahoo is a separate issue that in no way respects Sockalexis or any American Indian for that matter.
But what bothers me the most are those first comments I posted. The NCAI has become more organized and more PR-focused recently and they are working diligently to keep this issue in the public eye. And the more publicity the issue gets, the more insensitive comments we see that represent Cleveland fans as a whole. I’m tired of being subjected to the worst of us being given a public forum. This issue isn’t going to go away by ignoring it. It’s going to go away by getting rid of Chief Wahoo.
Before Newtown, Connecticut was known for the horrible school shootings that took place there, they were featured several times in the New York Times for another issue: their name and mascot. Prior to 1996, their high school was known as the Newtown Indians and their mascot was an Indian chief.
According to the Times in 1989, the school was already debating the mascot. By 1996, the name had changed and Times ran a long feature on the change that gave voice to both sides of the debate. That feature included the following passage:
Many students were angry, and so were many alumni and Newtown residents. The issue was hotter than the Presidential primary; at social gatherings, people avoided talking about the mascot situation. Local newspapers were filled with opinions for weeks. One resident even asked for a townwide referendum.
“Their zealotry for their mascot is as strong as our zealotry for our tradition,” said Ed Sarabia, the state’s Indian affairs coordinator and a native American.
Mr. Sarabia said native Americans have little control over their image; it is typically molded by white people through movies and the media, which have tended to exaggerate characteristics and distilled a varied group of people into a homogeneous culture.
“The American Indian has become the Plains Indian, which is like saying France is the same as Germany,” he said. Mascots, he said, often add to these inaccuracies, keeping alive a powerful image that native Americans want to correct.
The Chief Wahoo character used by the Cleveland Indians, and adopted by many high school teams, is a goofy, small man with a wide-eyed grin and a large nose. Native Americans contend this image is demeaning, as is the tomahawk chop, Mr. Sarabia said. Some Indians were fierce fighters and the tomahawk as a symbol of this, but Mr. Sarabia said he resents that side of the native American culture being exaggerated.
Mr. Sarabia said not all tribes used the tomahawk or were a warring tribe. “I have no identity with it,” he said.
Some Connecticut students, all native American and actively involved with their culture, visited Newtown High School last school year and explained that the pep rally and game activities — the war chants, tomahawk chants, the Indian costumes and dancing — trivialize religious customs.
The decision wasn’t necessarily popular, but in order to get in front of the debate and to prevent either side from bringing out the worst in one another, the mascot was changed. Today they are known as the Nighthawks. And while the mascot is still occasionally brought up, those who were offended by the name are no longer being hurt. If a high school in Connecticut can figure this out, why can’t the Cleveland Indians organization?
I said earlier I wasn’t sure Chief Wahoo is racist. I think racist is the wrong term. People who support Chief Wahoo don’t necessarily hate American Indians. But Chief Wahoo is insensitive, offensive, and hurtful to at least some American Indians. Offensive is different than racist, but either way I’m tired of defending something I know deep in my soul is hurting some people. I know there are also American Indians who are not offended by Chief Wahoo. But I’d be surprised if they would be offended by Chief Wahoo being removed.
When I see Chief Wahoo, I don’t see a racist figure. I see over 100 years of baseball history in Cleveland. I see a generational tie from my grandfather to my dad to myself. But it doesn’t matter what I see. What matters is what American Indians see in Chief Wahoo. Those issues of poverty, alcoholism, and depression that were so callously brought up in those Facebook comments exist not of their own volition. They exist because of a painful history that has completely disrupted their way of life. Why throw an offensive image that makes them hurt more on top of that?
I wish this debate could be framed differently. I don’t like one side being called racist and one side being called the PC Police. I think all of that noise skews the actual message and loses the plot. The problem is, as long as Chief Wahoo exists, this debate is going to continue to be brought up. And when it is, people will be called racist, people will get mad, people will say hurtful and insensitive things, and the only thing that won’t be discussed is the mascot itself. And Cleveland fans as a whole will continue to look bad.
It’s time. This is a call not to the people debating either side of this, but this is a call to the Cleveland Indians organization. It’s time to remove Chief Wahoo and let this debate go away. It’s time to stop putting fans in position where atrocious and insensitive remarks are used to represent the fan base as a whole. And it’s time to stop using a symbol that offends some people. There’s just no reason for it.
I hope the Indians get more proactive in this. Ignoring it as they mostly do will not make it go away. They can keep the name, keep the colors, keep the history. But I wish they would do more to make the name ‘Indians’ truly become an homage to a proud people with an incredible history on this land. I wish they would invite American Indian groups to games, honor them in between innings, and invite them in to speak with ownership and front office where topics about insensitivity and offensiveness can be openly discussed. I wish they would do more to promote education on true American Indian history, culture, religion, and stereotypes. If you’re going to say your name honors American Indians, you have have an obligation to actually live up to that promise. Make the name a partnership between the organization, the city and region, and the American Indian people.
But most of all, I just wish they would get rid of Chief Wahoo once and for all. This debate is exhausting and I think we’re all tired of it. If they removed Chief Wahoo today, we’d all wake up tomorrow and still root for the Cleveland baseball organization. Life will go on for us and we will all adapt and embrace the new imagery and icons of the organization. No matter what image is used to represent the franchise, we will all still be fans.