Cleveland Indians’ removal of Chief Wahoo reignites debate over controversial nicknames


Chief Wahoo, the grinning, red-faced caricature of a Native American that has served as the Cleveland Indians’ logo for more than 70 years, will be phased out at the end of the 2018 baseball season, a long-expected but politically fraught move that places pressure on the handful of remaining sports franchises that still use Native American imagery and nicknames, most notably the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

The Indians’ change, announced Monday in a statement from Major League Baseball, came at the urging of Commissioner Rob Manfred, who began pressing Indians chief executive and part-owner Paul Dolan nearly a year ago to eliminate Chief Wahoo, the presence of which had become a flashpoint between many fans of the team and advocacy groups that considered it to be racist.

“Major League Baseball is committed to building a culture of diversity and inclusion throughout the game,” Manfred said in his statement. Dolan, he said, “made clear there are fans who have a longstanding attachment to the logo and its place in the history of the team. Nonetheless, the club ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use.”

The team will continue to wear the Chief Wahoo logo on its uniform during the 2018 season, though it had already begun deemphasizing it in recent years and replacing it in some cases with a simple block “C” logo. By the start of the 2019 season, the team will cease using the caricature at all on its uniforms or on signage at its stadium, Progressive Field, in downtown Cleveland.

Groups representing Native American interests immediately praised MLB’s decision but wondered why the league did not go further.

“They should be commended for taking this step, [but] they took a baby step,” Philip J. Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, said in a telephone interview. Yenyo said he has been campaigning against the logo since 1992. “They’re still not going far enough. I don’t understand waiting until 2019 to get rid of it. [And] the nickname has to go, too. If they don’t get rid of the ‘Indians’ name, our culture and our spirituality are still going to be mocked by fans. They’re still going to be dressed up in red face and wearing feathers.”

An MLB source familiar with the issue said Monday the discussions between Manfred and Dolan were limited to the Chief Wahoo logo and did not include the topic of the team’s nickname.

“We have consistently maintained that we are cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the discussion” pertaining to the logo, Dolan said in MLB’s statement.

In 2016, when the Indians played the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, the nickname and logo were the subjects of a legal case in Canada when an activist sued the team and the league and asked a court to ban their use. The petition was denied, but by the following Opening Day, Manfred had begun to speak out publicly about the issue of Chief Wahoo and to signal his desire for the team to move on from it.

While the team will stop using the insignia on its uniforms and signage beginning in 2019, it will retain the trademark for Chief Wahoo and will continue to sell merchandise with the logo in the Cleveland market and a limited number of international markets, at least in part to satisfy a requirement for keeping ownership of the trademark. If those rights were relinquished, outside entities could profit off the logo.

The Indians began using the caricature logo in 1947 — it took on its current form in 1952 — and sportswriters in the 1950s began referring to it as Chief Wahoo. The team considered retiring the insignia in 1994 when it moved to the stadium now known as Progressive Field, but ultimately kept it — swayed at least in part by a grass-roots campaign of fans calling themselves Save Our Chief, who collected 10,000 signatures asking the team to retain Chief Wahoo, which many fans considered a cherished symbol.

The team’s deemphasizing of Chief Wahoo began in 2011, when it was dropped from the Indians’ road caps, and continued in 2013, when it was dropped from their home batting helmets. In 2016, Dolan acknowledged the block “C” had become the team’s primary logo but insisted Chief Wahoo was not going away.
“We do have empathy for those who take issue with it,” Dolan said at the time. “[But] it is part of our history and legacy.”

In a reflection of changing attitudes toward racially focused symbolism, several colleges and universities have changed their nicknames and/or logos under pressure from Native American groups in recent years, perhaps most vividly St. John’s University in New York, which in 1994 switched its nickname from the Redmen — which many saw as a racial slur — to the Red Storm.

Pressure has been mounting on Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to make a similar pivot away from a nickname many consider to be racist, with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser among those speaking out against it. In 2013, the city council passed a resolution urging a change, calling the nickname “racist and derogatory.”

“Cleveland’s decision should finally compel the Washington football team to make the same honorable decision,” Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter said in a statement Monday. Halbritter heads a group called Change the Mascot that has asked Snyder and the NFL to eliminate the Redskins nickname. “For too long, people of color have been stereotyped with these kinds of hurtful symbols — and no symbol is more hurtful than the football team in the nation’s capital using a dictionary-defined racial slur as its team name.”

Snyder, though, has vowed he will “never” change the team’s nickname, calling it a “badge of honor” and pointing to polls that show most people, even Native Americans, do not consider it to be derogatory. A Supreme Court decision last June, in favor of an Asian American band called the Slants, appeared to bolster the Redskins’ legal standing against attempts to cancel its trademarks, ruling that such attempts violate the First Amendment.

Other professional teams that use Native American nicknames and/or logos include MLB’s Atlanta Braves, the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie said Monday the team would refrain from making a comment about MLB’s announcement. As recently as 2014, NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell backed Snyder on the nickname issue, pointing to the poll numbers and saying the nickname is “presented in a way that honors Native Americans.”

President Trump is among those who have weighed in on the Redskins’ nickname in the past, tweeting about it in 2013 after President Barack Obama said he would consider changing it if it were up to him.

Obama, Trump tweeted, “should not be telling the Washington Redskins to change their name — our country has far bigger problems!”

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