During this year’s ALCS in Toronto, Douglas Cardinal brought a lawsuit to the Supreme Court of Justice in Toronto to prevent the team name and logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team from being used in Ontario. When that injunction was denied, Major League Baseball responded: “We would welcome a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue to address these concerns outside the context of litigation. Given the demands for completing the League Championship Series in a timely manner, M.L.B. will defend Cleveland’s right to use their name that has been in existence for more than 100 years.”
As someone who was born and raised a Cleveland Indians fan, and whose family’s roots stretch more than 100 deep into this town’s soil, I’d like to offer these thoughts.
In the Interest of Thoughtful and Inclusive Dialogue
Eyes closed, belly rising and falling with his breath, museum guests gasped when they happened upon this man amidst the mummies, pottery, and other assorted antiquities. James Luna, a Payómkawichum and Mexican-American artist, put himself on display in a work he called Artifact Piece, along with a collection of his modern day “artifacts” curated in a glass case nearby. He lay there as a solemn testament against the relegation of the existence and stories of Native peoples to ancient history museums.
The photo above was taken in 1987 in San Diego. About that time, on the other side of the country, I was in pre-school and my only reference for Indians were the grocery bag costumes with construction-paper feathers we made for Thanksgiving. That, and of course, Cleveland Indians baseball.
I was brought up believing there is no place in Cleveland for fair-weather fans — no matter how bad the stats. And the stats were certifiably quite bad. The year I was born, Cleveland’s baseball team was the last team in the American League East. That entire decade they never made a single post-season appearance.
And yet, like so many other kids in this city, I got busy growing proudly into my birthright of fanship passed down from time immemorial (or 68 years before I was born when Cleveland began calling their baseball team the Indians).
That means that for over a century now, the Cleveland franchise has perpetuated and even flaunted a brand that racially caricatures and stereotypes millions of people, not to mention desecrates the objects and rituals regarded as sacred to them.
Which is why, tonight as the team I grew up cheering for steps up to the plate to compete for a championship that has eluded them for so long, I won’t be watching.
“But You Don’t Get It”
For decades, many thoughtful voices have critiqued the team name and logo and requested that MLB and the Cleveland baseball franchise make a change. A common response by defenders of the brand is “You don’t get it. You don’t get what it’s like to be a Cleveland Indians fan.”
As a Clevelander, born and raised, I am compelled to add my voice to the public conversation and say, I get it. I really get it.
Some of the earliest memories of my entire existence include clapping along with John Adams on his drum, hiding under a blanket during a fireworks show at the Old Municipal stadium, and weaving through the crowds aloft my 6’7” tall father’s shoulders after the game. My childhood was filled with baseball from the time I could wave a toy mitt around to when I was old enough to begin the ritual of after school games of catch with my dad. Summers were little league and eating popsicles on the front porch while listening to Herb Score. There were the breezy nights at The Jake where my dad taught me the elements of the game as Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton performed their magic. Between innings, he cleared up any confusion about ground rule doubles, sacrifice bunts, and what the heck a balk is.
And of course, I was swept up with our city in the the heart racing World Series runs in 1995 and 1997, decked out with ribbons in my hair and Chief Wahoo on my cheek. Cleveland baseball was woven into my life since the very beginning, and these memories are some of the most vivid I have of my childhood.
However, in learning more about the history of our nation, eventually I woke up to the fact that Chief Wahoo was not just a friendly, smiley and fun logo. He represented something far more threatening. I appreciated Dana Norris’ summation of the problem with Chief Wahoo in this week’s Cleveland Scene. She said:
If you don’t see that Chief Wahoo is a racist caricature, then just pretend that the mascot was some other type of human, one who you enjoy. Like your dad. What if the team’s mascot was your dad and the team logo was a caricature of your dad drawn by someone who hates him. It’s your beloved dad, only he’s pictured wearing a dirty bathrobe and yelling at the newspaper circular about why milk costs so goddamn much. Point is, Chief Wahoo is not a flattering portrayal of a human being. I know we have good feelings about the logo because of our personal history with the Indians and our grandfather who introduced us to baseball and our love of the logo isn’t intended to be mean or dismissive of an entire race of people and, besides, we don’t know a single Native Americans who are personally offended, but that’s mostly due to the super effective genocide our ancestors perpetrated against them. We need to admit that, like may things that are old fashioned and historic, the Chief Wahoo logo is also gross and we now know better.
Consequently, I wrestled for a long time into adulthood with how to relate to my home team, one that is so entwined with my formation and understanding of myself as a Clevelander, while simultaneously growing in frustration and despair that our town was not dealing with the grinning red sambo representing us to the world.
For a long time, I reasoned that since I love this city and wish good upon it, I could conscientiously object to Chief Wahoo by sticking with the block “C” for Cleveland. That worked for me all the way through the 2007 ALCS, and even in the few years to follow as the team struggled to find their footing again. With Tom Hamilton dialed in at home and in my car, I listened to or watched almost every game.
But at a certain point the half-in cheering for the guys, while half-out objecting to the whole representation of the team wasn’t holding up. The irreconcilable mix of the nostalgia of youth and the anger and shame that comes with facing the history and racism in this country could no longer co-exist for me. There is no place in Cleveland for fairweather fans. There is no place for halfway fans, either.
My last game was September 7, 2011. Jim Thome returned to the team for a brief stint and I went with my family to Progressive Field to watch him at bat in a Cleveland uniform one last time. It was also my quiet goodbye to the team.
To be clear, this has not been an emotionless transition for me. When I pass the corner of Ontario and Carnegie, the feelings bubble up. For one, I miss the game itself – with its strategy and endurance and suspense. I miss cheering along with the whole roar of the city. And I especially miss sharing fanship with my dad, something that is so much a part of our family’s life. This has been a weirdly somber week for me, sensing the electricity and excitement all around me but not participating in it. And I imagine, if you’re a Cleveland Indians fan (or a fan of anything really) you can probably relate to the collateral damages that might come with walking away from fanship.
It’s an awkward exercise trying to write this out, to try to prove the legitimacy of my fanship, to say, “I GET IT! I 100% get what it means to be a Cleveland fan…..And yet, that’s not enough to make this whole thing okay.”
State of the Nations
As of today, there are 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and even more tribes recognized by individual states. An estimated 2.9 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in this country, in addition to another 2.3 million people who are of mixed Native descent and one or more other races. In each of these cultures and communities, there is vibrance and beauty and things to celebrate. But there are also upsetting current realities and the legacy of ancient wrongs that many tribes continue to face today.
You know how at long last, the past few weeks we’ve been having a national conversation about sexual assault? It’s been a floodgate of long kept stories of abuse and rape, and a reminder of the horrors and fears that women in the modern, western world still face today. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 5 (18.3%) women in the U.S. have been raped in their lifetime and 1 in 20 (5.6%) have been sexually assaulted. These numbers are stomach turning, and it’s hard to imagine anything worse.
As it turns out, it can get worse. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than the general population of women in the U.S. That translates to 56.1 percent who have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. 56 percent!!!!!! What’s more? In 86 percent of reported cases, the perpetrators have been non-Native. This is in contrast to non-Indigenous victims, for whom sexual violence is usually perpetrated by someone within their own race. Essentially, predatory stalking and and the incidence of non-Native men coming onto the reservation to assault women has become normative.
And in almost every other regard the numbers speak to the gaping discrepancies between Native Americans and the general population. Native Americans have 2.2x higher likelihood of diabetes compared with non-Hispanic whites. Heart disease is 20 percent greater and the stroke death rate 14 percent greater than all other U.S. races. One in four (25%) Native Americans and Alaska Natives are living in poverty compared to 13.5% of the general population. And the rate of suicide for Native American and Alaskan Indian populations – the Center for Disease Control reports the rate is nearly double that of the general population.
And you know, standing alone, these numbers should be enough to make us stop and rethink the whole Indians brand. But on top of all this, studies on the effect of racialized representations of Native Americans — and particularly Chief Wahoo — have demonstrated significant negative psychological impact on Native American children, perpetuating the staggering statistics of depression and suicide the Native American population is battling. As it turns out, caricatures and stereotypes, including Chief Wahoo, have a stronger negative impact on the self-esteem of youth than even hearing negative facts about their group.
That’s not okay! And we just can’t keep telling ourselves that the Cleveland Indians brand is harmless tradition. Season by season, it fuels a centuries old legacy of discrimination and displacement.
It needs to be known that it’s not just “outsiders” who are asking for change and want to imagine an alternative future for Cleveland baseball. I’m still not sure what I can do to really make a difference. I realize that my sitting out in objection is not affecting any financial bottom lines, and no one is going to notice one less voice in the crowd. But for what it is worth, today I publicly add my voice to many who for so long have been asking for change. It’s past time.
And though that change feels insurmountable in the face of money, and men in suits, and “Keep the Chief” t-shirts, there’s something else inextricably embedded in my Cleveland DNA — and that is to never stop believing. I will never stop believing that Cleveland is better than this. I will never stop believing that we have the creativity and openness to adopt new traditions around here. And I look forward to the night I can return to the ballpark to cheer on a new chapter in Cleveland baseball.
For Further Consideration
If you’d like to think more on these matters, here is a small collection of resources. And if you have thoughts you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you as well. Please email me at email@example.com.
Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports – Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian
Beyond Buckskin – Fashion Designer and scholar Jessica Metcalf speaks at Cusp Conference
More Perfect: Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl – Explores the complexities of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act
Forced Sterilization in the Late Twentieth Century – Gregory W. Rutecki discusses the issue of the U.S. government sterilizing thousands of Native American women in the 1970s.
@ – a movement to remove Chief Wahoo from Cleveland’s baseball brand
@NativeApprops – Dr. Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation), writer and professor
@indiancountry – Indian Country Today news media