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raceAhead: Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo Semi-Retires

January 30, 2018, 7:49 PM UTC

Yesterday, the Cleveland professional baseball franchise announced that they’ll be removing the“Chief Wahoo” logo from their uniforms next year. It comes after decades of complaints that the image, a grinning, red-faced, bulb-nosed, horse-toothed caricature is racist.

The image is clearly racist.

Last year, Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Baseball, began pressuring Cleveland chairman Larry Dolan to give up the logo, which has been alive in some form since 1948. (Earlier, if you consider the old newspaper cartoons of an actual Native American player named Sockalexis.) In a statement provided to The New York Times, yesterday, Manfred said that Dolan “ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball, and I appreciate Mr. Dolan’s acknowledgment that removing it from the on-field uniform by the start of the 2019 season is the right course.”

While Manfred may be taking a victory lap, the issue and the deeply held feelings behind the debate about Chief Wahoo is far from over.

Although there are millions of dollar at stake whenever a rebranding effort happens, it’s not just about the money. Part of the attachment to names like the “Indians” and caricatures like Chief Wahoo, is embedded in American culture and a twisted sentimentality that continues to this day.

Think about the Washington “Redskins,” a team that uses what many believe to be an n-word level racial slur in its name. (Even Cleveland’s Larry Dolan has said that if the Cleveland team had been called Redskins,” he would have changed the name the day after he owned the team.)

According to C. Richard King, a Washington State University professor who teaches and writes about race, gender and indigenous issues, “That the team would have settled on the name unselfconsciously underscores how deep the entitlement and attachment to all things ‘Indian’ were at the time, and how deeply embedded anti-Indian racism was in American public culture.”

His most recent book, Redskins: Insult and Brand, an unflinching look at the history and impact of the Washington team’s controversial name, helps to explain why otherwise nice people insist that Indian motifs are well intended and symbolic of good things – like pride, competition, and excellence.

The ongoing debate, moreover, has fostered a shifting defense of the organization and its use of American Indians, which has appealed to and exposed the complex contours of racial politics and cultural identity today. Much of the defense casts the franchise and fans in a positive light, stressing that they have good intentions and mean to convey honor with the moniker, logo, and associated practices. And more, it has stressed indigenous support, highlighting the importance of public opinion polls as well as endorsements of the team by prominent individuals and reservation communities. Importantly, the defense is about more than Indianness. In particular, it turns in spoken and unspoken ways on whiteness. On the one hand, it invokes the attachments and sentimentality of white fans to legitimate the team and its traditions. On the other hand, it derives from and defends a series of entitlements or prerogatives anchoring a long history of owning Indians and Indianness in U.S. settler society.

But besides the decades of activism and complaints, King cites numerous studies, including one by the American Psychological Association, that say turning indigenous people into cartoonish stereotypes does them lasting harm. “Clearly, whatever the intention, mascots hurt, underscoring the deep impacts of anti-Indian racism as well as the history and power anchoring it,” he says.

In other words, Indian names and symbols are now understood to be hurtful to others.

The mascot may not be going away entirely. The Cleveland team will not relinquish the Chief Wahoo trademark, which will prevent it being adopted and misused by others, but will also allow them to continue to sell merchandise bearing the logo at their stadium and in Northeast Ohio if they choose.

But they can make a different choice.

It would be nice if Chief Wahoo was moved to a permanent home in a museum, where his role in history could be properly understood. And it would be a smart move for the franchise to lose the name, while they’re at it. It’s a tough conversation, but long overdue. When entertainment franchises stop willfully hurting people, everyone wins.


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I'm actually a junior. Bill Veeck hired my pop in 1946, when he bought the club. Truly great man, Mr. Veeck. He signed Larry Doby the following season and broke the color line in the American League. Brought in Satchel Paige in '48 and won the World Series. Mr. Veeck loved the game, loved his players, loved the fans. And beer. Taught me a lot. For my father, it was a moonlighting job to help pay the bills. He was a construction laborer until his knees gave out. For me, it's a legacy. Never wanted to do anything else. The media and fans refer to the team as the Tribe — that feels good. It feels right.
Leonard Lee, the man in the Chief Wahoo costume