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Will Cleveland wave goodbye to Chief Wahoo?

April 18, 2013

By Stephanie Metzger

Every year on Cleveland Indians Opening Day, amid the sea of navy and red, a small group can be spotted just outside the ballpark. They aren’t there to see Nick Swisher, and they have no concerns about the starting pitcher’s ERA. Instead, they’re concerned about what the team is wearing and the name that represents them.

Chief Wahoo has been one of the Cleveland Indians’ primary logos since the 1940s. For many fans, the logo is a symbol of nostalgia and history, representative of the team’s past. The team’s name itself is said to be a symbol of respect to Louis Sockalexis, a Native American baseball player who played for the Cleveland Spiders in the 1890s.

Recently, Indians’ President Mark Shapiro said on ESPN Cleveland’s “The Really Big Show” that the organization is not eliminating the use of the Chief Wahoo logo. Some question this, as the logo is not used as prominently as the newer “Block C” logo. Shapiro claimed that the newer logo is intended to be representative of Cleveland and the city.

“No, Chief Wahoo’s not going anywhere,” Shapiro said. “We are certainly doing our best to promote the C because the C is something that we’re proud of. The C, we’re proud of because it stands for Cleveland… We want our team, we want our fans when they see our team play, to know that who we’re representing are the Cleveland Indians.”

Some fans still wonder if the Chief Wahoo logo is quietly being phased out by the organization. For years, the team has received backlash from Native American protestors who claim the logo and team name is racist and disrespectful. The logo is a caricature of a Native American, featuring hyperbolic physical features that can be considered stereotypical. The result has been the group of protestors who appear every Opening Day, quietly attempting to take a stand against the team.

The passion and dedication behind this group of protestors has been questioned, as they only appear once a year. Instead of handing out pamphlets or forms of education to inform fans of their feelings or heritage, they merely appear to be seeking attention.
Despite their quiet objections, perhaps those Native American protestors are simply misunderstood by fans. Many of Chief Wahoo’s protestors raise the question, if the logo depicted any other religion or ethnic background, would the nation be as accepting of it? For example, if the logo was a priest clutching a rosary, or a bearded Jewish man, would fans find it offensive?

Jessica Moskal, a Lakewood resident, has been aware of the logo’s racism since childhood.

Cleveland is often described as a city of depression and desolation, and Moskal feels that bad karma may be the cause.

“I think Cleveland deserves what it gets for having the Cleveland ‘Indians,’” Moskal said. “I would like people who support the logo and team name to tell me what they know about local history in terms of the tribes who lived here and how that might be related to the ‘sports curse.’ If people want their team to do better, I guess they need to find a way to lift that curse and a good way to start would be to start learning about what is actual geographic history and coming up with a name that actually means something to them.”

Moskal also said that the elimination of Chief Wahoo could be a stepping stone for the entire nation.

“If we did change the logo, the entire country would see that and think, ‘Wow, that city has class,’ and I think the country would see us differently.”

Many Native Americans find the portrayal created by Chief Wahoo shameful and embarrassing. However, some actually appreciate the team name and its logo.
Cleveland State student Felicia Chaplin spent time with Native Americans of Cherokee descent during a Viking Expeditions trip last summer. Chaplin’s group was hosted by Once Upon A Time, an organization in Maryville, Tenn. that combines student service with cultural education. There, Chaplin met people with Cherokee backgrounds.

“When we told them we were from Cleveland, they told us that they thought the Indians name was cool,” Chaplin said. “The genealogist in particular was excited at the mention of the team.”

Robert Kleidman, a Cleveland State sociology professor, says the stereotypes created by Chief Wahoo can create a negative impact.

“With logos or icons like Chief Wahoo, the key issue is stereotyping,” Kleidman said.
“Those who object to such images argue that they perpetuate demeaning and negative stereotypes of groups that affect both how those outside the group see them and how those in the group see themselves. There is research suggesting that negative stereotypes do result in discrimination by others, and for some members of the group, negative self-images. Whether any particular image or logo constitutes a negative stereotype is, of course, subject to judgment and argument.”

Cleveland fans seem to have a nostalgic connection to Chief Wahoo and the Indians’ name. Fans who defend the logo often refer to its alleged historical origin. On the other hand, those against the logo insist on its cartoonish, stereotypical caricature of a red, grinning face.

The Cleveland Indians have stated Chief Wahoo isn’t going anywhere, but as its seeming racism continues to offend, it may not be long before Wahoo waves goodbye.