The Cleveland Indians' mascot must go

Chief Wahoo is a symbol of hatred and prejudice.

By

"We'll have the Indians on the warpath all the time, eager for scalps to dangle at their belts."

That's what a Cleveland sportswriter wrote in 1915, celebrating the new name of the city's baseball team. Previously called the "Naps," in honor of Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, the team had recently traded Lajoie. So it needed a new name, and "Indians" was born.

So, alas, was Chief Wahoo.

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Chief Wahoo is the Indians' mascot, a grotesque caricature grinning idiotically through enormous bucked teeth. You can see him during this week's American League Championship Series between the Indians and the Boston Red Sox. He's a reminder of the days when whites regarded native Americans as savages on the warpath, with scalps dangling from their belts. And it's time for him to go.

How can we profess equality of all Americans, then mock the first Americans in our sports teams? Remember, Cleveland isn't the only culprit here. Take a look at the mascot for the Washington Redskins, and you'll see what I mean.

One defense comes from the Cleveland Indians' official history, which claims that the team was renamed in 1915 to memorialize Louis Francis Sockalexis, the first American Indian in the major leagues. So the team's name – and, by extension, its mascot – serves to honor native Americans, not to demean them.

There's one problem with the story: It's not true. Mr. Sockalexis had died just two years before, in 1913, but his name didn't figure in talks on renaming the team. Even more, it's irrelevant. Suppose the team had indeed been named to remember Sockalexis, who played for the old Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. That still wouldn't justify the use of Chief Wahoo, who bears little resemblance to Louis Sockalexis – or to anyone, really, aside from a shared racist image of the savage Indian.

But in one way, Sockalexis remains deeply relevant. Like African-American trailblazer Jackie Robinson, Sockalexis faced brutal slurs from opposing players. In the stands, meanwhile, fans would perform "war whoops" and dances when Sockalexis played. When alcoholism ended his brief major league career, sportswriters reported that he had succumbed to an inherent "Indian weakness."

By holding on to Chief Wahoo, then, we don't do any honor to Louis Sockalexis. Instead, we perpetuate precisely the hatred and prejudice that he encountered.

To be fair, Cleveland team officials have been working to replace Chief Wahoo with a cursive, feather-shaped "I." And the mascot in the stands is no longer a clownish "Indian," but a pink-and-yellow creature named Slider. But Chief Wahoo remains on the team's hats, which is probably the most prominent place of all.

And he's not the only Indian sports-team caricature, of course.

In 2001, the US Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to the use of native American images and team names by non-Indian schools. Four years later, the NCAA barred 18 "hostile and abusive" mascots from postseason tournaments. But more than 100 colleges and universities still maintain a native American mascot.

At the professional level, of course, we have the Atlanta Braves (who can forget the "Tomahawk Chop?") as well as the Washington Redskins. By any measure, the headdress-clad "Redskin" is every bit as offensive as the cartoonish Chief Wahoo.

And here someone might respond that the cartoon of Chief Wahoo is, well, just a cartoon, saying it doesn't reflect the sentiments of anyone today, and only an overly sensitive, politically correct liberal could object to something so innocuous.

In 1947, the Washington Post rejected black demands to remove "Little Black Sambo" from elementary school textbooks. Remember Sambo? To African-Americans, this simple-minded and thick-lipped figure embodied the worst elements of antiblack caricature. But to the Post, he was just a storybook character – and a harmless one, at that. "To insist that Negroes be given equal rights with other citizens is one thing," the Post editorialized. "To insist that their particular sensibilities entitle them to exercise a kind of censorship is quite another."

But the issue involved more than just black attitudes, as one local African-American leader replied. Instead, he argued, it affected everyone. If white children absorbed the Sambo story of black-as-buffoon, they would never regard African-Americans as truly equal.

So when you watch the Cleveland Indians on television this week, watch your kids as well. Ask yourself what the image of Chief Wahoo teaches them about Native Americans. And ask yourself if you can live with the answer.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."

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