The dust has yet to settle on the Cleveland Indians’ World Series loss in an epic Game 7 against the Chicago Cubs, but that’s not why the team has people talking the day after. Cleveland’s entire postseason run has been accompanied by talk about their logo, Chief Wahoo, and whether or not the image is racist. Now it looks like that talk will continue into the off-season.
On Tuesday’s Mike & Mike show on ESPN, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said that he plans to meet with Indians owner Larry Dolan when the season is over to talk about the logo. “I think that after the World Series, at an appropriate point in time, Mr. Dolan and I have agreed we’ll have a conversation about what should happen with that particular logo going forward,” Manfred told Mike & Mike.
Manfred says he understands why some people might object to the image. “I understand that particular logo is offensive to some people, and I understand why. On the other side of the coin, you have a lot of fans that have history and are invested in the symbols of the Indians.” The comments from Manfred echo statements made by Dolan earlier in the year, when it was announced that Chief Wahoo would be demoted to “secondary” logo status, behind the “classic block-C” logo, but not scrapped altogether. “[The team has] no plans to get rid of Chief Wahoo,” Dolan told the Cleveland Plain Dealer back in April. “It is part of our history and legacy.” However, Cleveland went back to wearing their Wahoo caps during the postseason.
While the controversy has been going on for decades, it heated up again with the Cleveland team’s success this year. During the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, an Indigenous activist and member of the Blackfoot tribe, Douglas Cardinal, filed a lawsuit to try to prevent the team from using the logo during the games in Toronto (it’s worth noting that the Blue Jays’ announcer Jerry Howarth has refused to say the team’s name on air since 1992 after receiving a letter from a fan explaining why it was offensive). In response to the lawsuit, the MLB issued a public statement:
“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.”
The team has been known as the Indians since 1915, but the Chief Wahoo logo as we know it today did not make an appearance until 1951. Walter Goldbach was just 17 when he created the Wahoo image, and says that retiring it would be “100 percent wrong.” Fans of the logo cite the history and legacy of it as reasons for keeping it, but opponents cite the history and legacy of the treatment of Native people in the United States as reasons for removing it. The Cleveland American Indian Movement has been protesting in front of Indians games since 1970, the group’s executive director, Sundance, told PBS. Some activists point to the stark contrast of the use of Chief Wahoo as a logo as the team plays in the World Series while the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock happen simultaneously, and Native protesters are subject to violence at the hands of the United States government.
The controversy around Native mascots is not unique to the Cleveland team, or to baseball. The Atlanta Braves have come under fire for their name and mascot, as have the NFL’s Washington Redskins and various colleges, as well. In response, the #NotYourMascot social media campaign has been launched by Native people who object to their culture being used as mascot imagery for sports teams. In 2008, researchers from Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and University of Arizona studied the psychological effects of Native mascots. The researchers concluded, “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.”
In early April, ESPN host Bomani Jones stirred up controversy when he appeared on Mike & Mike wearing a “Caucasians” shirt meant to point out the offensiveness of Cleveland’s logo. Jones called out what he saw as the hypocrisy of fans who were offended by his shirt, but not the Indians logo. “To have a problem with the the logo of this (pointing to his shirt) would be to have a problem with the Indians. But if you’re quiet about the Indians but have something to say about my shirt, I think it’s time for introspection.” Some fans are indeed having changes of heart. Pedro Rodriguez was photographed two years ago dressed up as Wahoo, complete with red face. He claimed he was “honoring” Native Americans with the costume. This year, he apologized to Native activist Robert Roche, saying he had been wrong for wearing it.
Activists and opponents of the logo are hopeful that such introspection, aided by dialogue, may ultimately lead to the discontinuation of the logo. In MLB’s official statement about the logo this postseason, they indicated that they “would welcome a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue to address these concerns.” Last week, the National Congress of American Indians sent a letter to Manfred requesting to be included in meetings and dialogues about the mascot.
“NCAI is encouraged that you, Commissioner Manfred, want to initiate a dialogue to discuss the next steps for addressing the Cleveland team’s mascot and name, as well as the harmful effects that Native people experience when they are stereotyped in professional sports,” the letter said. “We applaud your leadership on this issue and look forward to Major League Baseball addressing this in a way that can be seen as a model for all professional sports leagues and franchises across America.”
Only time will tell what the results of the off-season conversations will be.