In less than one week, the Cleveland Indians will begin their 101st season, likely mired in similar pressure from Native American groups that the Washington Redskins face today.
Some people consider the team name of the “Indians” offensive. But unlike the Redskins, whose logo doesn’t draw nearly as much scrutiny as the actual name of the team does, the Indians public relations issues stem from “Chief Wahoo”: their red-faced, large-toothed, headdress-donning mascot.
One attorney called Chief Wahoo: “the only professional sports logo in the Western world that caricaturizes a race of people.” Native American protesters say that an entire race, culture and heritage, especially one indigenous to this country, should not be portrayed in such a comical — and ultimately demeaning — fashion.
As much as the Cleveland Indians and Major League Baseball may want to say otherwise, Chief Wahoo is not based in any type of homage to Native Americans. The mascot was created by an ad agency in the late 1940’s, and has evolved over time into the current red-faced caricature we’re familiar with today.
Some may not see Chief Wahoo as being as blatantly controversial as, say, the name of the Washington Redskins. The latter is clearly a more overt derogatory representation and description of Native Americans. It’s no secret that the team was named so by George Preston Marshall, one of the most racist sports owners of the 20th century (he was the last owner in the NFL to allow African Americans to join the team). Yet Native American poet and activist Suzan Shown Harjo still described Chief Wahoo as “the graphic equivalent of the name of the Washington NFL team.”
The public pressure is on. The protests against the name during the Indians’ 2015 opening day game was bigger and louder, according to observers; that could only increase again when the team hosts their home opener against the Boston Red Sox this Monday. Publications like the Cleveland Plain Dealers and Cleveland Scene have openly discussed ending Chief Wahoo. Politicians from the state legislature and up to Congress believe Wahoo should go away. And then there’s the $9 billion federal lawsuit filed by American Indian Education Center Director Robert Roche.
Unlike Redskins owner Dan Snyder, Indians CEO Paul Dolan and team president Mark Shapiro have demonstrated some level of understanding towards the sensitivity of this issue. Shapiro has stated that the team does not have an “intractable position” on the issue, and ultimately wants “to do the right thing.”
If the major domino — being the name of the Washington Redskins — were to fall, in the form of the Redskins changing their name, it’s very likely that Chief Wahoo, and perhaps the entire name of the Cleveland Indians, would be next. The media coverage and overall national pressure may turn into a nightmare scenario. Add in the fact that the team continues to be among the very bottom in ballpark attendance, and the Indians cannot afford a PR nightmare that could further jeopardize fan experience.
The tide of public opinion is surging towards these teams erasing the perceived fiction of honoring Native American history with their team names and graphical representation, and changing their names and mascots. While most of the focus remains centered on the Redskins, there looks to be plenty of domino’s which could fall after that.