The Intersection of the Indians and 2018

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The Indians announced today that they will no longer use the “Chief Wahoo” logo on uniforms after the 2018 season. From the New York Times:

The Cleveland Indians will stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms beginning in 2019, according to Major League Baseball, which said the popular symbol was no longer appropriate for use on the field.

The logo has long been the source of anguish and frustration for those who consider it offensive, outdated and racist, but for many of the team’s fans it is a cherished insignia — a divide that has played out at all levels of sports in recent years with teams featuring such nicknames and insignias. Most universities have stopped using Native American nicknames, while other teams like the Washington Redskins in the N.F.L., for example, have resisted growing pressure to do so.

Chief Wahoo, a cartoonish caricature of a Native American that has assumed several forms over the years, first appeared on the Indians’ uniforms in 1948. In recent decades various groups across North America have appealed to the team to renounce the logo, to no avail. But over the past year the commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, has pressured Paul Dolan, Cleveland’s chairman and chief executive, to make a change.

The Cleveland Indians are not the only team with a Native American team name and/or logo in major sports. Obviously the Washington Redskins are the most famous and controversial, but one could also throw in such famous team names and mascots as the Atlanta Braves and the Florida State Seminoles. They have all faced varying levels of protest, and they have responded in different ways.

I must confess that I have a Native American aunt, who has never brought the issue up to me, and is ironically married to a Washington Redskins fan. With that said, I’ve also given the issue very little critical thought. On the one hand, I don’t think naming teams after Native Americans, or individual tribes, should be in any way offensive. On the other hand, that’s not what’s happening in many of these cases. The word “Redskins” is not a name of a tribe, it’s a derogatory term for Native Americans. The Chief Wahoo logo is not a depiction of an actual Native American, but rather an exaggerated cartoon. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason at all that you can’t name Florida State as the Seminoles, or Chicago as the Blackhawks, provided that you are properly depicting them from a historical standpoint. There’s obviously a fine line between paying homage to the first Americans by naming teams after them, and offensively depicting them in manners that don’t do them justice.

As for Chief Wahoo- I think the team probably got this right. It took pressure from MLB and Native American activists, but they got to the right answer. Chief Wahoo was drawn up in 1932, and frankly the stereotypes of that time are largely not acceptable today. I don’t put their hat on the same level as the Washington Redskins being named after an actual slur, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong to act on the matter.

Now excuse me while I go hide my “Palmer Indians” little league hat.

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