Time for Indians, MLB to get rid of ridiculous and offensive Chief Wahoo
- Cleveland's mascot may be popular among the team's fans, but it is more demeaning and harmful—and in longer-term ways—than some might realize.
In 1947, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck decided that his team needed a new logo. It had been 32 years since the franchise had officially adopted the nickname “Indians,” and in that time, the team’s logo had gone from a simple blue block C to variations on a stereotypical vintage American Indian figure. But Veeck, who bought the team in 1946, wanted to do something different. So he went to the J.F. Novak Company, a local business that had created patches for the Cleveland Police and Fire Departments, and asked them to create an Indian-themed logo that “would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm.”
The task fell to 17-year-old draftsman Walter Goldbach. “I had a hard time figuring out how to make an Indian look like a cartoon,” Goldbach told Cleveland Magazine six decades later. “I wanted him to be happy.” Perhaps inspired by a long-running cartoon that had featured prominently on the front pages of the The Plain Dealer in the decade prior—“the Little Indian,” who accompanied the newspaper’s recaps of Indians games—Goldbach came up with a smiling, yellow-skinned face with big eyes, a large hook nose and a single feather sprouting from a band at the back of his head. The design was accepted; one year later, it was on the uniforms worn by the Indians when they won the 1948 World Series, their last title in franchise history.
The logo was altered slightly in 1951, with the skin changed from yellow to red and the nose made smaller. It has survived, in some form or another, over the last 65 years of Indians baseball despite countless protests by American Indian groups and activists over the way it demeans them and their history. Somewhere along the line, this grinning, absurd and undeniably racist caricature gained a name, though no one knows for sure from where or how: Chief Wahoo. And as the Indians take on the Cubs and try to win their first World Series in 68 years, Wahoo remains on Cleveland’s uniforms, a silent reminder of the entrenched intolerance of an entire culture—and an unimaginable affront to another culture as well.
In 2014, the Indians again made a change, announcing that going forward, the team would use a red block C as its new primary logo. The move came after a few years of quietly deemphasizing Chief Wahoo on uniforms and at Cleveland’s stadium, Progressive Field. In 2009, when the Indians moved their spring training home from Winter Haven, Fla., to Goodyear, Ariz., Wahoo was not featured in their new facility—one that, notably, is located in a state with a far larger American Indian population than Florida. That same year, Wahoo disappeared from road batting helmets, replaced by the aforementioned block C. All-Star Game and playoff apparel was mostly devoid of Wahoo, and his presence shrunk on the team’s official merchandise and website.
But while Chief Wahoo ceased to assume a prominent role in Cleveland, the logo did not disappear entirely. Wahoo has been on the caps and jerseys of the Indians as they have made their run to the World Series this October. On the Indians’ website, you can buy hats, t-shirts, lawn flags, wallets, socks, dog collars and many more collectibles that all feature Wahoo’s oversized grin. If you go to the website of New Era—the official baseball cap provider of MLB—you can buy an Indians hat with Goldbach’s original 1947 logo, or one with a small Wahoo on the front and, ironically enough, a giant “RESPECT” patch plastered on the side.
Wahoo’s presence amid Cleveland’s first World Series appearance in 19 years has sparked a wave of criticism from multiple places. As they have for decades prior, American Indian activists have decried Wahoo’s continued use. Earlier this month, Douglas Cardinal, a Canadian architect and a member of the Blackfoot tribe, went so far as to file an injunction in the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario to keep the team from using the Wahoo logo or the name “Indians” during the ALCS against the Blue Jays. “It’s racist—that is all there is to it,” he told The New York Times after a judge denied his motion. “It is wrong and it must stop.”
The argument from Cardinal and other activists is simple: The depiction of Chief Wahoo actively contributes to the mockery of American Indians. Supporters of Wahoo, however, have countered that the logo is simply that: a logo. Wahoo is merely a cartoon, not intended to hurt anyone. “It was the last thing on my mind that I would offend someone,” said Goldbach in 2008.
Throughout this, the Indians have not budged. Despite dropping Wahoo as the primary logo, the team told The Sporting News earlier this year that it is “very cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the conversation … but at present time [has] no plans of making a change.” During the ALCS, former Indians general manager Mark Shapiro—now with the Blue Jays—told reporters that Chief Wahoo “personally bothered” him, but he apparently does not support getting rid of Wahoo either. “People in [Cleveland] are deeply, deeply passionate about Chief Wahoo, and I want him to be part of their team,” he said.
A loud and vocal segment of the fanbase has Wahoo’s back as well. In a 2015 Plain Dealer editorial calling for the end of Wahoo, online readers voted nearly two to one to keep the logo. In a Plain Dealer article on Cardinal’s lawsuit, meanwhile, readers jumped to Wahoo’s defense in the comments. “I am not Indian nor do I view our logo as offensive to anyone as it is clearly a cartoon-like figure,” wrote one. “The day the Cleveland Indians relinquish the name or the logo is the day I stop rooting for them.”
“In America, there is no other ethnic group so casually subjected to such treatment,” wrote Jacqueline Keeler, an American Indian and a Cleveland native, in a piece for Salon in 2014 on the Indians and Chief Wahoo. “We are repulsed as a society by black or Asian caricatures or stereotypes, but Native people are not regarded the same.”
Keeler’s words came in the wake of a widely spread photo from the Indians’ home opener in April of that year, of a man named Pedro Rodriguez—his face painted red like Chief Wahoo and wearing a headdress—talking to Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache and the executive director of Cleveland’s American Indian Education Center. Roche was there with members of the American Indian Movement to protest the use of Wahoo, as he and they have for several years; Rodriguez was there as a fan. Peter Pattakos, a lawyer who documented the conversation for the website Cleveland Frowns, introduced the two after finding Rodriguez outside the stadium.
“I asked [Rodriguez] if he’d ever show up to a game in blackface, to which he replied that he wouldn’t,” Pattakos writes. “I then asked him why redface was any more excusable, and he struggled to come up with an answer.” To a local TV station, Rodriguez could only say, “It’s Cleveland pride.” (Rodriguez subsequently apologized to Roche and said he would stop wearing facepaint to games.)
This is the reality created by caricatures like Chief Wahoo: one in which a racist stereotype is supported and perpetuated because of the insistence of the team and its fans that Wahoo is just a cartoon. Wahoo helps encourage behavior like that of fans like Rodriguez, who dress up like American Indians because they can’t imagine how that would be offensive. Fans see that Wahoo has been a part of the team for decades and assume that there is nothing wrong in following that lead, in showing up to a game wearing facepaint and a headdress.
After all, those fans have grown up in a world where images like Chief Wahoo are the prevalent representation of American Indians—where they are mascots, advertising pitchmen and Halloween costumes, not real people who have experienced pain and suffering. Those fans live in a world where a team gets to call itself the Redskins—a racial slur—and insist that it does so to honor American Indians. Those fans watch teams like the Atlanta Braves, whose fans perform the “Tomahawk Chop” and reduce American Indian culture to the equivalent of a “Charge!” cry. American Indians exist somewhere on the level between make-believe and prop in American sports culture.
But it’s not just fans that are impacted. In 2005, the American Psychological Association put out a paper stating that “research has shown that the continued use of American Indian mascots … has a negative effect not only on American Indian students but [also] all students.” Mascots like Chief Wahoo, the APA writes, “undermine the ability of American Indian nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality and traditions” and “are a contemporary example of prejudice by the dominant culture.” And American Indians suffer as a result: A 2014 study from the Center for American Progress notes that “the presence of [American Indian] mascots directly results in lower self-esteem and mental health for [American Indian] adolescents and young adults.” That is a heavy blow to a community that already struggles with substance abuse, suicide and poverty at rates that are many times higher than the national average.
The use of Chief Wahoo—essentially a red-faced Sambo figure, no different than the horrific blackface visages that were commonplace in the 19th century—normalizes racist attitudes toward American Indians. It dehumanizes a group of people who have, since the first days of colonization and Western exploration, been brutalized and marginalized with unimaginable cruelty. It reduces American Indians to the level of a cartoon—an insulting depiction created by a white man in the service of another white man at a time of legalized racial segregation in the United States. It trivializes the history of an entire people.
The Indians have attempted to downplay Chief Wahoo at every possible turn, or even to take American Indians out of the equation entirely. “When people look at Chief Wahoo, they think baseball,” Bob DiBiasio, the Indians’ senior vice president of public affairs, told Cleveland Scene in 2012. But they cannot be allowed to play both sides of this argument. If Chief Wahoo is problematic enough to be reduced to an alternate logo and made all but invisible to the casual fan, then Chief Wahoo should be done away with entirely. To do otherwise is to admit that Wahoo is a problem only so long as other people notice—that there is an acceptable level of racism with which the Indians and Major League Baseball are comfortable, as long as it’s not prominently featured on the game’s biggest stage.
That wasn’t the case in World Series Game 1, when the Indians took the field with Chief Wahoo on their caps and the sleeves of their jerseys in front of thousands of fans, some of whom had Chief Wahoo on their shirts or hats. Some of them even showed up, like Rodriguez did in 2014, with faces painted or wearing a headdress.
MLB, meanwhile, seems content to let the matter lie. During the ALCS, the league issued a statement in which it appreciated “the concerns of those that find the name and logo of the Cleveland Indians to be offensive.” But MLB went no further than that, stating simply that it “will defend Cleveland’s right to use their [sic] name that has been in existence for more than 100 years.” After World Series Game 1, Commissioner Rob Manfred went on ESPN Radio and told listeners that he wants to talk to Indians owner Larry Dolan after the Fall Classic about Chief Wahoo. But while Manfred said that he “understand[s] that that particular logo is offensive to some people . . . 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.”
That can’t be the line of thinking anymore. It’s long past time for MLB and the Indians to do away with a logo that calls back to a time in this country when ethnic minorities and groups were treated as jokes—when American Indians existed as mascots. To hang on to pieces of racist arcana like Chief Wahoo is to remain stuck in 1947.