Indians is a racist nickname, Cleveland’s baseball team announced on Monday. Just not racist enough that the team will drop it immediately.
“We believe our organization is at its best when we can unify our community and bring people together—and we believe a new name will allow us to do this more fully,” said club owner Paul Dolan in a statement. He then added, “While we work to identify a new and enduring franchise name, we will continue using the Indians name.”
He clarified in an interview with the Associated Press that the team would play as the Indians through 2021. The team’s website added, “We will continue to sell selected merchandise featuring our historic names and logos, including Chief Wahoo as a way to acknowledge our history.”
The decision to change the name is righteous. The decision to hold onto—and make money off—Indians is disappointing. The team is so close to doing the right thing. It just has to finish the job.
Part of what makes this all so frustrating is that by all accounts, Dolan and his subordinates handled themselves well over the past few months.
Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Football Team, had to be dragged toward justice: He only agreed to nix the franchise's racial slur after the team’s title stadium sponsor, FedEx, essentially forced his hand. If Dolan’s sponsors pushed him into rethinking his team’s moniker, they did it behind the scenes: The same day that Snyder acquiesced, Dolan announced that he would begin conversations with the community “to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”
Those conversations began about a month later, shortly after the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition staged its annual Change the Name, Change the Logo protest at Progressive Field on Opening Day. (Typically this involves keeping their cool as fans in redface hurl slurs and bizarre insults, such as “Go string some beads!” at them. This year, amid the pandemic, those shouts mostly came from passing cars.)
Members of the coalition were immediately impressed by the tone of their video calls with the team, they say. “It seemed more real,” says Philip Yenyo, the executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio and a descendent of the Mēxihcah people of the Aztec Empire. “The process that they went through spoke a heck of a lot louder than what Washington did.”
The team held calls with members of the four organizations that make up the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition: AIM, The Committee of 500 Years of Dignity & Resistance, the Lake Erie Native American Council and the Lake Erie Professional Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. At least one meeting opened with a traditional Ojibwe prayer. Members of the groups, while reluctant to discuss details, say they believed team officials were really listening. Yenyo remembers watching Dolan’s face change as Yenyo described his own experience.
The activists referenced the growing body of research that has concluded that Native American mascots reinforce stereotypes of Native American people as bloodthirsty warriors. A 2008 series of studies found that “exposure to American Indian mascot images has a negative impact on American Indian high school and college students’ feelings of personal and community worth, and achievement-related possible selves.” This is the last thing sports teams should be doing to a youth population that already suffers 2.5 times the overall suicide rate.
They also explained that even nicknames less obviously egregious than Washington's former name contribute to the problem. Indians, Braves, Chiefs, Blackhawks, Warriors: They equate Native Americans to Cardinals, Tigers and Bulls—to animals.
“The logos are part of a larger overarching problem of how Native people are represented in this country,” says Cynthia Connolly, a member of the executive board of the Lake Erie Native American Council and a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. “We’re relegated to the historical past. We’re feathered and leathered, rather than your coworkers, your neighbors, your classmates. As a kid, the limited ways other people see you—that starts to impact you.”
So when they heard that the team would change the name, they experienced a multilayered joy. They had won a battle they have been waging for six decades, a victory that many of the first activists did not live to see. They could dream of a day when they could walk past Progressive Field—hell, past half the car bumpers in Cleveland—and not see what felt like an attack. And they felt buoyed as they imagined other teams following suit: pros, colleges, the nearly 200 Ohio high schools that still display Native mascots. In choosing to silence Indians, the team made these Native Americans feel heard.
“The process that the team took, it shows that it is possible to genuinely listen to voices of Indigenous people and organizations,” says Josh Hunt, the vice chair of the Committee of 500 Years and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, “That it is possible to take steps toward change.”
For Dolan, the next step should be to do away with the name now. “We don’t want to be the Cleveland Baseball Team or some other interim name,” he told the AP. The team’s website offers an unconvincing explanation for the delay: “Using Indians until we’re ready to unveil the new name will help the organization focus its attention on the current success of our ball club and plan for the long-term success of the new name.” This does not track. The Washington Football Team does not appear distracted by its interim moniker. It's currently sitting in first place.
As for the idea that selling hats festooned with a grotesque caricature somehow helps acknowledge the team’s history, this seems to be an attempt to maintain the trademark; U.S. law calls for organizations to use it or lose it. The team would surely sacrifice money by forfeiting the trademark. But the goal of this change is not simply to rearrange letters on a scoreboard; it’s to stop circulating those names and imagery. The team has acknowledged that this is offensive. Why does it want to monetize what it acknowledges is offensive?
All of the Native activists who spoke to SI declined to comment on the club’s decision to spend one more year calling itself the Indians. But they all said that they will call it the Cleveland Baseball Team. Cleveland’s Indians are on their way out. Cleveland’s Native Americans should not have to see them again.