Cleveland Indigenous Groups Demand Seat at the Table For Indians Rebrand Efforts
As the Cleveland Indians consider changing the team’s nickname, Indigenous activists in the Northeast Ohio community are asking for the same thing as many marginalized people across the nation.
They want to be heard.
On Friday, July 3rd, the Indians organization released a statement on social media saying that they would consider changing the moniker used since 1915.
After reading the team’s statement, members of five Cleveland-area Indigenous groups all told Cleveland Baseball Insider on Sports Illustrated that they wish to be consulted on the change.
Each person interviewed expressed their wishes that the organization removes the team name and all images of Indigenous peoples, religion, and culture.
Cynthia Connolly, an executive board member for the Lake Erie Native American Council (LENAC), expressed that the team could not be taken seriously if they did not speak directly to Indigenous groups.
LENAC is one of four organizations that make up the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition, which has been fighting for a change to the baseball nickname.
“It would be complete erasure if we were not at the table,” Connolly told SI.
The groups expressed doubt that they would be contacted about the nickname even after the team’s statement, citing years of litigation and unreturned phone calls.
Philip Yenyo, Executive Director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, stated that he has been calling the team’s front office for more than 25 years and has never gotten a call back.
Yenyo said he has called the Dolan Family and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s office each day since the retirement of the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben food brands in late June.
When reached for comment, the Indians organization told CBI that they stick by their July 3rd statement.
Sundance, Executive Director of the Cleveland American Indian Movement (AIM), also called for his group’s seat at the table, laying out five steps the baseball organization must take to “repair the harm they have done.”
First, AIM asks that the organization immediately change the name to no longer reference Indigenous peoples, cultural items, or religions.
Second, they ask that the organization cease licensing of the Chief Wahoo logo, which was retired from on-field use in 2019, but is still sold in a limited capacity to retain the trademark.
Third, AIM expects the team to maintain the Wahoo trademark and aggressively pursue people who violate the licensing, “taking an active approach to preventing further harm.”
The final two steps regard repairing the harm mentioned, starting with an apology to all Indigenous peoples.
“We have been out there for half a century, and they completely ignored us,” Sundance said regarding each year’s Opening Day demonstrations in opposition to the name and Wahoo logo.
“They continue to make money when they knew native people had a problem with it. Even when they knew studies existed.”
AIM, along with the Coalition, cite scientific research led by Stanford University and Dr. Stephanie Fryberg as an additional reason for wanting the change. The study showed negative effects on Indigenous peoples’ self-esteem when primed with native sports mascots, especially among adolescents.
The American Psychological Association called for the retirement of Indigenous symbols in sports in 2005 based on this evidence and more.
The final step cited by Sundance and AIM was to repair the damage done to non-natives through the team’s perpetuation of misrepresentative Indigenous imagery, a sentiment shared by the Coalition.
The groups said that the Indians organization has misled fans by perpetuating the myth that the name was meant to honor Louis Sockalexis. They maintain that any native mascots do not “honor” Indigenous peoples.
Naming the team was the decision of local sportswriters. As Sundance pointed out, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a half-page of racist cartoons next to the day’s announcement that the team would be called “Indians” in 1915. This decision was made just 25 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre.
The groups all called for the Indians organization to become leaders in Ohio for implementing educational programs in schools about Indigenous peoples, as well as leading schools across the state to ditch their native mascots.
American History courses leave out information about Indigenous peoples after 1900, the groups say, contributing to what they deem a modern form of racism, associated with erasure and invisibility.
Without accurate representation, corporations are left in control of Indigenous cultural imagery, often appearing “feathered and leathered.” This lack of representation places the burden of education on Indigenous people themselves, causing a constant effort to explain their humanity to others.
“People who are racist know that they’re racist, and they’re happy to be,” Sundance said. “There is a very large group of people who will say that they are not racist, and then turnaround and do things that would be characterized as racist.
“You don’t have to be philosophically racist to be functionally racist. Once people learn that, it would be easier to talk about our issues with people. Until the educational piece is implemented, it’s an uphill battle.”
This problem is particularly rampant in Ohio, boasting the largest number of native mascots in schools per capita of any state, said Connolly. This is often the case in states without any federally recognized Indigenous tribes, she added.
The activists and cultural groups believe that the baseball team has the platform to repair these transgressions.
“We urge them to take the lead on social justice in the city,” said Chris Begay, Chairman of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance.
Connolly also called into question the leadership of the Cleveland City Council, who recently passed legislation that deemed racism a public health crisis in the city.
“If this city is serious about this work, our leaders must call for the professional baseball team to end the use of all Indigenous themes and imagery,” she said in a statement from the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition.
Joshua Hunt, the vice-chair of the Committee of 500 Years, said one Native American History class was all that it took to open his eyes to the issue.
“(Among team mascots) there are lions, bears, tigers, and us. We are being used in the same way as predatory animals,” Hunt said. “We only exist as a stereotype to some people.”
Those interviewed also shared personal stories of trauma related to the team name and logo. Yenyo, a lifelong Clevelander, became emotional while speaking about harassment by non-native family members for his activism, being called “Chief Wahoo.”
Marlys Rambeau, a lifelong Clevelander, and chairperson of LENAC, recalled being followed by a social studies teacher letting out war whoops in the hallway.
“My school years were hell because of Wahoo,” Rambeau said. “I do not want my grandkids to have to go through what I did.”
Sundance reiterated that Indigenous peoples do not wish to demonize or villainize those with opposing viewpoints.
AIM believes the five steps are tangible things that the Indians organization can accomplish, and that how they are implemented is up for discussion and compromise. Sundance even admitted that AIM and other groups do not speak for all Indigenous peoples.
“It’s not that we all have to agree, it’s that we are trying to protect the most vulnerable,” Sundance said. “If it offends or it harms, it does not matter if it’s harming one person or a thousand people.
“But if you’re not going to care about the one, say ‘We don’t care.’ Don’t try to convince us that you do.”