Don't Keep the Chief

When I was seven, my dad took me to a Cleveland Indians game, and I wanted a hat. He led me to the merchandise shop. We surveyed their shelves, stocked with blue hats, red foam fingers, gray t-shirts, and so on. Most featured a symbol I had seen throughout my hometown: Chief Wahoo, grinning obscenely, with terrifying eyes, an exaggerated nose, and a feather sticking out of his head. My dad asked the clerk if we could buy anything without Wahoo. I later learned that my dad had been involved in the rather unpopular effort to change the name of the team—or at least the logo—for decades. In keeping with his stance, we walked away with a very uncool hat commemorating the tenth anniversary of the stadium’s construction. I was unenthusiastic, but my dad wore it all the time, until it finally fell apart (or did chew-toy duty for our bulldog) years later. I now understand that my dad’s lame commemorative hat was almost defiant, the only way to show civic baseball pride without endorsing the ugliness of his favorite team.

Any sentimentality I have related to Chief Wahoo differs wildly from that of most Clevelanders, who grew up rooting for “the Tribe” without a lefty-activist dad. Like any sports logo, Wahoo serves to many as a visual synonym for the town. Clevelanders wear hats or shirts sporting Chief Wahoo intending to express solidarity with their team and city, a symbolism especially strong because the two share a certain long-suffering, working-class pluck. So, efforts to persuade Clevelanders of the insidious racism of Wahoo meet declarations of sentimentality and dubious claims that the name and logo “celebrate” Native Americans. Now, just as the Indians had begun to gradually retire “the chief”—the team changed its primary logo to a block C in 2013, keeping Wahoo on the sleeves but off the hats and score displays—the increased national scrutiny that came with their first World Series berth since 1997 has provoked a renewed defensiveness among the fans and, sadly, the team itself.

If viewed with fresh eyes, the problems with the mascot become obvious. But it’s hard to view something with fresh eyes when you’ve seen it daily for your whole life. And it’s even harder when the loudest critics are outsiders. Defenders are used to Wahoo-related controversy, but only from the city’s out-of-touch liberals and the occasional tiny cluster of Native Americans protesting outside the ironically named Progressive Field before games. Criticism from the East Coast media—the same people who only rarely remember that there’s anything between New York and Chicago, who predicted that first the Warriors, then the Red Sox, then the Blue Jays, and now the darling Cubs would steamroll the underdog Cleveland team (whether in basketball or baseball)—provoke even more hostility: Sigh, Cleveland against the world, as usual. Fans, whether or not they show up in actual redface complete with tasteless red-white-and-blue headdress, seem more determined to “keep the chief” than ever. And as a taunt to the haters, the team returned Wahoo to the caps.

But, strong as Clevelanders’ associations with Wahoo may be, I sincerely hope my neighbors can disentangle their civic identity, their justified resentment that the country belittles the town and forgets us until election year, and their pride in the marvelous journey of the baseball team from this image. It is not a celebration. It reduces an entire continent of cultures, identities, and histories into an insulting caricature.

Opponents of Chief Wahoo often ask his defenders whether they would defend analogous team names based on other ethnicities—especially in locations associated with the abuse or genocide of that group. (The last detail anticipates the “Fighting Irish” argument, which absurdly compares the Indians to the Irish-selected name and logo of the Irish-founded University of Notre Dame.) I’ve asked other Jews whether they’d want supporters of a team named the Munich Juden to stop toting a Jewish caricature or wearing yarmulkes or oversized noses to the game. Yes, it’s deliberately shocking, but the perspective shift is necessary to gain a clearer view of the impact of the Wahoo. If the noses strike you as insensitive, why does the blood-red Wahoo seem okay? If the nation that killed your ancestors and attempted to annihilate your heritage named a sports team after you and “celebrated” you by wearing crude imitations of your spiritual ornaments, would you really feel honored?

One potential reason Wahoo has endured so long, based on my own experience and conversations with fellow fans, is that the caricature is so extreme that our brains’ facial-recognition software doesn’t even see it as a human face. But, my fellow Clevelanders, force yourself to look into Wahoo’s creepy eyes. Try to find any humanity at all in his leering grin. Consider all those he putatively stands for, the millions of Native Americans whose identities we co-opt for a baseball team. After we beat the Cubs and bring a World Series championship back to Cleveland for the first time since Dewey beat Truman, let’s really think about Wahoo, and, while we’re at it, the name “Indians.” Sure would be nice to retire them on a high note.

Trevor J. Levin ‘19, a Crimson Arts executive, is (probably) a Social Studies concentrator living in Mather House.


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