This past October, the Cleveland Indians made a surge onto the national stage with their run to the world series, and in the process brought their controversial logo into the spotlight.
In the summer of 2013, my dad and I saw the Indians play two games against the Twins in Cleveland. The team was on the cusp of their epic close to the season that would see them secure the A.L. Wild Card, before bowing out to the Rays. While we were in Cleveland (my dad and I are remote tribe fans), we were privileged enough to receive a tour from one of the club’s summer interns. It was on this tour that I first learned the origin story of Cleveland’s mascot.
Chief Wahoo. Chief Knock-a-Homa. Reference to Native Americans broadly is not uncommon in American sports. Cleveland’s ball club has been known as the Indians since 1915, and the story I heard on my tour of Progressive field is not the one you would expect. Louis Francis Sockalexis, was a native American baseball player born on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation in Maine (just a few hours north of where I am a student at Bates College in Lewiston, ME). He played for the then Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. According to Baseball Reference, Sockalexis was a career .313 hitter. After the departure of Nap Lajoie in 1914, the club was in need of a name to replace the ‘Naps’. Baseball writers in Cleveland organized a contest, and ‘Indians’ was the winning mascot, to be used as a form of tribute to Sockalexis being the first Native American to play professional baseball. So the story goes.
I am a diehard Indians fan. My Dad was raised in Akron where his fanhood was born, and raised me in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Tiger territory, as a young supporter of the Tribe. In the early 2000’s we used to come down to Cleveland and camp out for a weekend and watch a three game series at the Jake. I sent my dad pager messages during the 2007 ALDS opener against the Yankees while he was in a meeting. We met in Toronto to see the tribe clinch the pennant at the Rogers Centre. Our shared fanhood is the focal point of our father-son relationship. Being an Indians fan is fundamentally a part of who I am.
And this is especially why I am in support of the franchise at least moving on from the Chief Wahoo logo, and considering a possible new mascot. Is the Chief Wahoo logo cultural appropriation? Absolutely. It is a gross portrayal of what a particular ethnic group looks like, and it certainly isn’t what Louis Sockalexis looked like. I believe the Indians are an upstanding, well-run organization. From the Dolan family, to Chernoff and Antonetti, and of course Francona and the players, the club exhibits nothing but class and integrity. Which is why such a racist image feels incongruent with the character of the organization.
Think this is a politically correct, liberal bullcrap line of thought? Maybe. But I’m not concerned with being politically correct. I’m concerned with organizations like the Indians that have the size and scope that they do, believing that people, in this case Native Americans, should be treated with simple human decency and respect. Their paraphernalia is in an expression of disrespect and racism, even if it is not explicit. That’s not an argument for political correctness, but rather simply being winsome and altogether quite normal towards fellow human beings. If the franchise truly wants to stand by the narrative that it’s mascot is a tribute to Sockalexis and his achievements, then it follows that Chief Wahoo should be disbanded.
Does the franchise have the right to retain the logo? Certainly. American culture loves to appropriate things, and that likely won’t change anytime soon. There is very little pressure for the Indians to make any substantial changes. But from my view, it seems there is nothing but positives to be had from moving on from the Chief Wahoo logo.