World Series puts Cleveland’s controversial mascot on the national stage

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The Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo logo is yet again facing criticism for being disparaging of Native Americans. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo logo is yet again facing criticism for being disparaging of Native Americans. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

As the Cleveland Indians vye for the World Series title, the national spotlight is also shining on the team’s controversial logo.

Amid protests over the smiling red-faced symbol, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he and Indians owner Paul Dolan would meet to discuss the future of the “Chief Wahoo” after the World Series.

Manfred said he understands the “logo is offensive to some people, and all of us at Major League Baseball understand why.”

“For those of us who know our history, an Indian head means genocide.” said Sundance, executive director of the Cleveland American Indian Movement

Before Game 1 on Tuesday and Game 2 on Wednesday, members of several Native American groups and their allies protested against the team name and symbol. Nearly a dozen people gathered in front of Progressive Field holding signs decrying the logo as a racist symbol, Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer reported. Signs read “People Are Not Mascots” and protesters chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Red Sambo’s got to go.” The chant is in reference to the logo’s likeness to a caricature used to disparage African-Americans since the 19th century.

The Cleveland American Indian Movement has been protesting in front of Indians games since 1970, the group’s executive director, Sundance, said. Sundance moved to Ohio when he was 17 years old and said he was incredulous at the level of comfort with what he saw as “racism in broad daylight.”

“For those of us who know our history, an Indian head means genocide,” he said.

Before they were the Indians, the team went by the “Naps” after 3,000 Hit Club member Nap Lojoie. But in 1915, the club asked baseball writers from The Plain Dealer and The Leader to pick the new name. Team officials say sports writers chose “Indians,” because that was the nickname for Cleveland’s National League team during the 1890s when Louis Sockalexis, the first known Native American to play in the National League, was on the team. An alternate version of the story holds that the writers were trying to ride the wave of success the Boston Braves achieved after winning the World Series in 1914 with Native American imagery, Plain Dealer sports columnist Mark Naymik told the NewsHour.

The Plain Dealer first featured a cartoon Native American in 1932 to illustrate how the team performed the night before. The “Chief Wahoo” logo in its current form did not appear until 1951, after the team paid 17-year-old Walter Goldbach to redesign the logo. Goldbach, who worked for an ad agency, reworked the newspaper cartoon and changed its skin tone from yellow to red.

In 2014, The Plain Dealer denounced the mascot, saying it was time for a “clean break.”

The team has since distanced itself from the caricature, changing the primary logo to a block “C” in 2013. But the image is still featured on the team’s caps and on their uniform sleeves during the postseason. Team officials told The Washington Post earlier this year that they would “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.”

Activist fervor in recent years reignited in 2015 after a federal judge upheld the cancellation of the Washington Redskins patent on its name following multiple lawsuits from Native American groups spanning two decades. Social media hashtags emerging from the Washington case such as #ChangetheName and #NotYourMascot have come to represent opposition to the use of Indigenous peoples in all sports. Last year, sportswear company Adidas offered to work with high schools and colleges that wanted to rebrand from their current indigenous imagery.

Major League Baseball has also faced legal pressure to change the team’s logo. During the American League Championship series this year, an architect and Canadian indigenous activist, Douglas Cardinal, asked a Toronto court for an injunction to bar Cleveland from wearing the jerseys and caps with the “Chief Wahoo” logo when it played the Blue Jays in Toronto. The court rejected the injunction.

Major League Baseball released a statement in the wake of the lawsuit saying:

“Major League Baseball appreciates the concerns of those that find the name and logo of the Cleveland Indians to be offensive. We would welcome a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue to address these concerns outside the context of litigation. Given the demands for completing the League Championship Series in a timely manner, MLB will defend Cleveland’s right to use their name that has been in existence for more than 100 years.”

On social media, fans are split on the mascot. Many in the Cleveland fan base view the logo as a connection to their history with the team. Those opposed have called for immediate removal of both the name and image.  

A 2008 study on the effects of logos depicting Native people from research psychologists at Stanford University, University of Michigan and University of Arizona found that while indigenous children reported positive associations with Native American imagery, they also experienced depressed states of self-esteem and community worth.

“Mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves,” the researchers wrote.

There are more than 10,000 Native Americans in Cleveland, said Philip Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio. Outside of Game 1 and Game 2 of the World Series, demonstrators from the organization reached out to fans to educate them on the harmful effects that seeing the logo has on indigenous people, he said.

Yenyo said some were receptive to one-on-one dialogue and even changed their opinions on the logo and name. He is also hopeful that conversations between Major League Baseball and the Cleveland Indians after the World Series will result in the changing of the team’s name and mascot.

“It’s about educating people and doing it in a tactful way,” he said, adding that in order to create real change, residents need to be reminded of the Native presence in the area.

“We’re still here. We still exist.”

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