Have the Cleveland Indians done enough?

By Sarah Sidlow

New year, new us? Not yet. But for the Cleveland Indians, 2019 will be a year of transformation. That’s because the Native American caricature, Chief Wahoo, which has appeared on their jerseys in one form or another since 1947, is on the way out.

The chief is part of an ongoing Native American mascot controversy, which accuses American sports businesses such as the NFL’s Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs, MLB’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves and the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks of not only perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Native American people, but also profiting from the images that damage relations with Native Americans.

For its part, the Indians franchise has been downplaying the Chief Wahoo logo in recent years, opting instead for a “C” as its main cap logo, and has just announced that the mascot will no longer appear on team uniforms after this season.

Yet, while Mr. Wahoo will cease to appear on the team’s uniforms next year, he’ll still be hanging out in the gift shop, on hats, T-shirts, beer can coolers and various other merchandise.

That doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. The most obvious argument against the decision is that by responding to public pressure to remove the mascot, the Indians franchise has given validity to the opinion that the Native caricature is harmful—basically, they’ve admitted that the racist image needs to go. Therefore, continuing to profit off of it is not only irresponsible, it’s hypocritical.

Others point to the practice of some die-hard Indians fans that includes wearing red-face or headdresses at home games—something that the club has done little to curb.

To many, Chief Wahoo’s absence from the team jerseys feels like a disingenuous appeal to public pressure, rather than a thoughtful approach to racial sensitivity. As one of the smallest Census-classified racial minorities in the United States, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic in the country, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

And though baseball clubs are private companies, they have a horizon-wide visibility on taxpayer-funded airwaves and in taxpayer-funded stadiums. To broadcast this racist symbol to the masses, many argue, is to further ostracize and insult a vulnerable and critical American population.

But there are others who think the whole controversy is a big load of Wahoo-ey. Baseball teams are private companies, they argue, and therefore aren’t violating any laws by promoting their logo. Moreover, the logo has been around for 60 years, and it’s only recently caused such an uproar. Others argue that campaigns like this one are just examples of an increased American sensitivity to political correctness that, if unchecked, could make our entire culture super, super boring.

Not to mention, some baseball die-hards and historians are quick to point out that you can’t change the past—it doesn’t make sense to sell a jersey from ten years ago if it doesn’t look like it did ten years ago.

Finally, there are those who argue that the decision to keep or ditch the Wahoo does very little solve a very large societal problem. Gift shop politics alone won’t mend America’s broken relationship with its Native people, they argue, and it’ll take something a whole lot more drastic, more expensive and more unified to make that happen.

In defense of Chief Wahoo

It’s enough to make a Reds fan root
for Cleveland.

By Ron Kozar

After hearing all the busybody objections to their mascot, the Cleveland Indians should have rolled their eyes, laughed, and left Chief Wahoo on the crowns of their caps. Lacking the spine to do that, they should at least leave him on their merchandise.

I call the objectors busybodies because that’s what they are. Few of them are honest-to-God Indians. Polls by the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and by the Washington Post twelve years later found that only 9% of American Indians take offense at the team name “Redskins,” supposedly the most insulting Indian reference of them all. Though there is no comparable poll about Indian attitudes toward Chief Wahoo, these figures suggest that few Indians have gotten the memo about the outrage liberals tell them they’re supposed to feel. Most of the ill humor is coming instead from the Volvo-and-wheat-germ set – from people, I’d wager, who don’t like baseball anyway.

But, regardless of who is doing the nagging, the indictment of Chief Wahoo is a weak one. They say their concern is about stereotyping, but Chief Wahoo’s liberal critics love to stereotype Indians. The Indian stereotype that liberals have been pushing for decades is Iron Eyes Cody, the solemn, environmentally conscious red man who weeps at the awful things that palefaces have done to the land, such as pollution and indoor plumbing. (For an emetic overdose of this stereotype, just visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.) Chief Wahoo, by contrast, does not fit that stereotype, and that’s why liberals hate him. He’s just a happy brave, with a huge smile, who loves baseball.  Cartoonist Walter Goldbach, who created Chief Wahoo in 1947, says he was told to come up with a character showing “pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm.”  In that, Goldbach succeeded brilliantly. But joy and enthusiasm do not fit the stereotype. It annoys liberals to see Indians portrayed as happy about anything, especially anything as American as baseball.

The fact that Chief Wahoo is a cartoon is the next item in the indictment. To be the subject of a cartoon depiction, critics assume, is inherently demeaning. But that argument proves too much. Consider Notre Dame’s cartoon mascot, a diminutive, pugnacious Celt raring for a fistfight – a mascot, moreover, who is far truer to stereotypes than Chief Wahoo is. If the Thought Police want Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo merchandise to go up in flames, they’d better stoke the furnaces for the Fightin’ Irish too.  And the next into the fire after that would be Viktor the Viking, the stuffed-toy incarnation of Minnesota’s football mascot, whom some Norwegian pecksniff somewhere surely finds offensive. And there are ethnic mascots aplenty among colleges and high schools – Highlanders, Gladiators, Cavaliers, Redcoats, all of whom embody stereotypes at which people in the Scottish highlands, or Rome, or other offended points on the globe might take umbrage. Come to think of it, Bugs Bunny will have to go too, since he typifies a smart-alecky, streetwise Bowery punk. Trafficking in such shopworn stereotypes is, as Obama used to say, just not who we are. By the time they consign every cartoon stereotype to the flames, liberals will have an inferno worthy of the glory days of book-burning.

At this point, liberals will cry “Racism,” as they always do when they’re losing. Chief Wahoo, the argument goes, is as racist to Indians as Little Black Sambo is to blacks. Portrayals of Sambo, however, exaggerate the lips and the hair grotesquely, justifying the accusation of racism.  There’s nothing like that in Chief Wahoo. He has red skin, pulled-back hair, and a feather, but those features are not overblown or embellished in any way. They are there only to let you know he’s an Indian. Liberals say it is for the offended minority, not others, least of all white sports fans, to say what is racist. That absurd position, however, excludes any inquiry into the alleged offender’s purpose. The purpose behind those horrid caricatures of Black Sambo is mockery and ridicule. The purpose behind Chief Wahoo, by contrast, was to create something likeable, even lovable.

And the proof that the Cleveland Indians succeeded in that purpose lies in merchandise sales. By a gratifying irony, liberal menstruations about Chief Wahoo have only made his visage a hotter seller than ever before.  Even if they lack the fortitude to stand up to liberal crybabies, the Cleveland Indians should still keep Chief Wahoo because of the profits that await them if they do.

When liberals began weirding off about bathrooms, statues, and the like, they stirred up the backlash that put Donald Trump in power. Taking offense offensively at Indian sports mascots is part of that same ill-advised culture war. Chief Wahoo should stay right where he is, and liberal censors who take vicarious offense on behalf of Indians should switch to decaf.

Too little, too late

The Cleveland Indians need to do more
than just change their uniforms

By Patrick Bittner

Though the recent years have seen an uptick in the recognition of racism in this country, little progress has been made on the behalf of minorities and to fight the damaging effects of this aspect of America. Everywhere we turn in the media, arguments are being brought forward that show examples of racism in everyday life. From the way police departments profile people, to the way colleges accept students, the role of racism is profoundly present. While we are doing better at recognizing this, we are lacking in making effective change. Half measures and empty gestures are being implemented to create a show of change from the systemic racism this county is so apt to hold onto. This is no more apparent than in the case of the Cleveland Indians stopping the use of long-time mascot Chief Wahoo on their official jerseys. While supporters of this move point to it as a sign of good faith progress, it ultimately falls short of making any decipherable change as it fails to maintain a brand continuity of message. The official team jersey is dropping the mascot, but millions of dollars stand to be made by the franchise through licensed merchandise featuring the outdated symbol. Ultimately, this move is nothing more than an empty gesture by the team to try to appease commentators.

While this move may seem like a step in the right direction, it is merely nothing more than an attempt to stir up recognition of the franchise that has done little else to ebb the tide of racist images and gestures at its games. As Simon Moya-Smith, an Oglala Lakota, points out in an NBC news article from the last day in January, “They haven’t banned fans from wearing redface and headdresses at the field. They haven’t abolished Chief Wahoo. And they haven’t apologized for enabling racist behavior nor creating a hostile environment for Native Americans in Cleveland and in Ohio.” Removing an inherently racist, outdated, and wrong image from a game jersey is a move so small that it hardly deserves any recognition at all. If the team and its governors were truly apologetic and wanting to institute real change, they would impose a number of sweeping reforms aimed at the fans and all merchandise and licensed products. And if the leadership of the team was good, they would find a way to do it without losing fans or drawing criticism from the Native American community.

This tiny measure falls short in creating a brand continuity that commits the team to removing all racist symbols, logos, and actions. It is without a doubt that there will be an uptick in sales of merchandise portraying Chief Wahoo should they ever pledge to remove his image from everything. However, while some may argue that this extra profit could be used to expedite the process of change that needs to occur, the thinking in that is inherently flawed. You can use profits from the sales of tickets to a dog fight to stop dog fighting. If the Indians leadership was committed to removing racist symbols from their brand, they could do it with the vast amount of money that they receive in the form of tax breaks and taxpayer-funded stadiums, parades, and other services. It is not about capital, it is about greed. Greed of money, ideas, and power. Clinging to the outdated idea that the mascot is nothing more than a symbol of the team, innocent from racist notions or overtones, is a ridiculously greedy way of saying what is right and what is wrong.

While we are arguing over what a sports team is doing a few hundred miles away, people are experiencing racism in our community. Change does not need to come from those at the top who are trying to balance the pressures of people from all over the world, it can come from each of us helping someone in need. Creating a better world is not just about symbols or mascots, or even people with millions of dollars trying to make millions more. It is about making the world better for your neighbors. Being offended by a sports symbol is not about being weak or being out of touch with tradition. It is about being strong enough to say that the traditions are weak and should be changed. Arguing about Chief Wahoo isn’t saying that the past should die and be forgotten, but rather it is saying that the past was wrong and we should learn from it. If making a relatively minor change in the branding of a sports team can bring peace and comfort to an entire race of people, every possible means and quickness should be taken to achieve that goal. It is time to be the change instead of waiting around for it to just happen.

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Patrick is a student of Humanities and loves politics. He enjoys writing for DCP and hopes to get people thinking about powerful issues. Reach DCP freelance writer Patrick Bittner at PatrickBittner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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