Cleveland Needs to Retire Chief Wahoo
Kevin Schneider | On 18, Jan 2014
Kevin Schneider is a part-time contributor to DTTWLN. Upon the recent mention of a possible change in Chief Wahoo’s use as the Indians’ logo, Kevin asked if we would post his opinion on the matter. We agreed, provided it was well-thought out and supported. While all the writers of DTTWLN do not agree with Kevin, and this is his own opinion, it is clearly well-thought out. If you have a strong opinion pertaining to Chief Wahoo and how it is used, you are also welcome to email your well-thought out opinion to lead writer Mike Brandyberry.
At first, I thought it must be a typo.
As a second-year high-school teacher, I had grown accustomed to unique student names and the spellings of them. But this one made me wonder if the registrar had made some typing errors when keying in the last name of the student I’ll call, James Bluenose.
I’m altering James’ name to protect his identity. His full name included a physical feature with a color. This caught my attention because it varied even more than the students such as “Jeremy” ending in an “i” or the ones bearing names I never had heard.
When I talked to James before class one day early in that school year, he proudly described himself as a “100% Native American.” That typical tall lanky kid, learning his place in the world like most high-school freshmen, explained the name came from a physical trait his family noticed in him at birth.
James wasn’t a typo, not at all. And I felt foolish – both for judging James’ name to be odd and also for the insensitive Chief Wahoo logo that stared back at me from the beige classroom wall.
I recalled my memory of James this week when web site reports started surfacing the Cleveland Indians ends would bench the Chief Wahoo logo that groups protest at the start of every baseball season. I admit I felt relief and a little pride, pride on a smaller scale than James expressed to me about his heritage that one day.
And I felt respect and hope for others like James and his family. About 2 percent of the nation’s population, or more than 5 million people, are American Indian or Alaskan native, according to the 2012 U.S. Census.
Losing arguments for Chief Wahoo
Indians Director of Communications Curtis Danburg said in an interview on Cleveland.com Jan. 9 the team has no plans to eliminate the Chief Wahoo logo or even use it less.
“We’re not changing our approach at all,” he said. “You’ll see the same logos on the same place on the uniform this year. There’s no process to eliminate Chief Wahoo.”
In a Cleveland.com poll, 58 percent of respondents still think Chief Wahoo should be the team’s primary logo, while 23 percent want to “get rid of it altogether.” About 14 percent want to keep the Wahoo logo but make the block “C” the primary logo, and 5 percent have no opinion.
A team should embrace fans and their cultures rather than insult them. A team finishing second to last in the Major Leagues in ticket sales can’t afford to alienate any cultures. For those using polls such as the Cleveland.com one to support keeping Chief Wahoo to avoid upsetting the fans who like the logo, I contend those who will stop supporting a team for doing the right thing – finally – and benching its culturally insulting logo probably weren’t true fans in the first place.
And those going to games want to support the team and its players, along with reigning A.L. Manager of the Year Terry Francona. They don’t attend games to see the Chief Wahoo logo.
I never understood the true effect of the logo until I met James. Most fans likely haven’t met a James or other true American Indians. Those opportunities don’t happen daily. Mine didn’t happen until I was 25-years old.
The team’s officials could be pro-active, socially responsible, and turn this into a positive story by taking several simple steps rather than standing stuck in time with a red-faced cartoon with an abnormally large toothy grin and feather.
Those in the Indians front office can make a positive public-relations move by educating the public about real American Indian life, by giving the microphone to those who understand the culture, and by being proactive in benching Chief Wahoo instead of “monitoring” what happens with the Washington Redskins logo, as Danburg described the club’s stance in the Cleveland.com podcast Thursday. In public relations, companies and groups that react to instead of getting out ahead of a story ultimately face harsher scrutiny.
Next, the Tribe front office and players can follow up the logo shift to use only the script “Indians” or block “C” by creating a museum or exhibit at Progressive Field about the evolution of the team’s logos. The team can donate to causes, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C., supporting the education and welfare of American Indians. And the team can invite tribal leaders to its social suite as honored guests and continue to build goodwill with American Indians.
Many fans want the team to show progress in social responsibility in addition to the win total.
The charter member of the American League doesn’t need to shed its history that comes with the team name “Indians,” even if it does reflect Christopher Columbus’s false belief he had arrived in India. The “Indians,” or as we fans affectionately call them, “the Tribe” can stay as a compromise for now.
The Indians even could solicit fan input to adopt a new primary logo and perhaps increase revenue from sales of paraphernalia featuring the new look.
Struggles for real American Indians
I would guess a majority of that 58 percent majority who support the insensitive logo haven’t met James or a Native American like him sharing similar struggles, hopes, and plans. If they did, I would hope they, too, would want to permanently shelve their Chief Wahoo gear.
No one, especially a child, deserves to grow up in the shadow of a caricature, being made to align with a face that that wouldn’t even be appropriate for a character on a Saturday morning cartoon today.
Author and American Indian Sherman Alexie has written short stories and the young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicling the struggles with alcoholism and poverty his family and others like his endured as a kid growing up on Spokane Indian Reservation. Yet Alexie also shares the triumphs he experiences in athletics, learning, and love as he assimilates with students in a mostly white high school.
The Indians team’s continued promotion of the Chief Wahoo look disregards James and other American Indians as human beings and paints them as concocted colorful images. These people already face uphill climbs to success.
In fact, according to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau release, the poverty rate for American Indians and Alaskan natives almost doubles the 14.3 percent rate for all Americans. American Indians live to be an average of 73.5 years, four years below the national average, according to the federal Indian Health Service. This comes partly from high rates of alcoholism and a self-harm/ suicide rate 65 percent above the overall national level.
Already facing these sobering statistics, American Indian families and their children shouldn’t also need to face the Chief Wahoo caricature and the stereotypes it helps deepen in fans’ minds.
Looks at other controversial logos
Other athletic teams already have shifted logos and even names. Miami University, my alma mater, ditched not only its Native American chief logo but also the name “Redskins.” The change happened gradually, after the university started educational programs about the Miami tribe, offered scholarships to tribe members enrolling, and planned open forums to discuss possible team names.
Then, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma in 1996 passed a resolution urging the university to change its team name. By 1998, the university became the “RedHawks,” based partly on the red-tailed hawk hailing from both Oklahoma and Ohio.
When my friend taught on an American Indian reservation in the Southwest almost a decade ago, she asked the students their thoughts on sports teams and logos. She reported that, by far, the students rejected and felt insulted the most by Chief Wahoo for caricaturing their people.
On the other hand, they didn’t object to logos such as the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk or the Florida State Seminole, which looks more like an actual American Indian than a cartoon.
Introspective look as a fan
Growing up in central Ohio, I grew up loving baseball and cherished my family’s trips to Cleveland to see the Indians during the lean years and, later, during the sellouts as a Lake County resident.
I also learned Native American history growing up and went with my family to outdoor dramas Tecumseh! and Bluejacket featuring great Native American warriors battling settlers encroaching on their lands. I appreciated the loud fake gun sounds and quick action. But I didn’t realize until later how I held stereotypes about Native-American culture.
Then, some 20 years later, I met James. He wore buttoned shirts, jeans and sneakers. Never did he wear moccasins, and he didn’t go home to live in a tepee. Like the other students in my English class, he liked different types of music, loved pizza, and enjoyed going to movies and playing sports.
I have been a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan and grew up wearing hats, coats, and socks featuring Chief Wahoo. To share a part of my life with students, my love of baseball, I had hung a handful of pennants I collected as a kid in one corner of my classroom. I placed the flag of my favorite team at the top of the display.
But after talking to James, realizing my responsibility in teaching language arts to him and students like him, I knew I couldn’t continue to keep that Cleveland Indians pennant. I felt shame that day after talking to James.
Chief Wahoo’s red-faced, toothy caricature haunted me from his place on the Cleveland Indians flag. After school that day, I took down the pennant and put it in a box, where it has remained ever since.
Nine pennants now hang from my back classroom wall in Georgia, including one featuring the local Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk logo. Some wonder why the flag of my favorite team, Cleveland, remains absent.
It will be until the team permanently burying Chief Wahoo from its logo lineup. Team officials can honor his memory by finally educating the public about true modern American Indian culture.