After 105 years and decades of protests by Native American groups, Cleveland’s baseball team will drop “Indians” from its name, report David Waldstein and Michael S. Schmidt for the New York Times. Since the name change process is still in early stages, rebranding will not take effect until at least the end of the 2021 season, team owner Paul Dolan tells the Associated Press’ Tom Withers.
“The name is no longer acceptable in our world,” Dolan adds.
The announcement follows the Washington Football Team’s decision to remove a term that many consider a racial slur from its name this past July. Native American activist groups had petitioned the D.C. team to change the offensive title for decades; over the summer, as protests against racial injustice ignited by the police killing of George Floyd swept the nation, the franchise also faced pressure from a number of its largest corporate sponsors.
Mere hours after the Washington team announced its name change, the Cleveland team announced that it would conduct a “thorough review” of its name.
“Our organization fully recognizes our team name is among the most visible ways in which we connect with the community,” the team noted in a statement at the time. “… [W]e are committed to engaging our community and [ask] stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”
The Cleveland team joins an array of organizations now examining the painful histories and racist imagery embedded in their names, logos and mascots. Though the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has long called for an end to “Indian” sport brands, which it says “perpetuate negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples, and contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples,” these protests have, historically, been overlooked.
“There’s no longer any doubt about how this sad story of Native mascots ends, just when and how,” Paul Chaat Smith, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, tells Smithsonian magazine via email. “... [The decision] immediately makes the position of the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Blackhawks more lonely, tenuous and indefensible.”
The Cleveland team’s current name dates to 1915. As Tyler Carey reported for WKYC 3News in July, then-owner Charles Somers may have been inspired by the contemporary success of the Boston “Miracle” Braves. The name could also be a nod to Louis Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Nation and a legendary outfielder who had a brief but remarkable stint on the Cleveland Spiders, a separate National League team that dominated the Ohio city’s baseball scene in the late 19th century. Sockalexis was so popular that some fans and sports writers colloquially referred to his team as “the Indians,” according to Vince Guerrieri of Cleveland magazine, who adds that he is “undecided” whether this is the definitive story of how the moniker stuck.
Mascots featuring Native imagery proliferated in America during the early 20th century—a period marked by the oppression of Native groups, with the United States government challenging tribes’ legal rights and forcing young students to “Americanize” by attending English-language boarding schools, wrote Leah Binkovitz for Smithsonian in 2013.
In 2018, the team announced plans to retire its mascot, a cartoonish depiction of a Native American man known as “Chief Wahoo” that first appeared on the team’s uniforms in 1948. But as the AP notes, the mascot is still popular with many fans, and merchandise bearing its image remains available for purchase.
“[It’s] an outrageous, racist caricature,” Smith told Smithsonian’s Brigit Katz in 2018. “And what’s worse is that in the city of Cleveland in Northern Ohio, it’s really the only visible representation you see of Native Americans ... That’s where it becomes this very insidious phenomenon that puts Indians completely in the past as a caricature.”
Per Mike Axisa of CBS Sports, protests against both the character and the team’s name gained traction in the early 1970s. Though the franchise started scaling back on the mascot’s use in the 2010s, owner Dolan told the Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto in 2016 that he had “no plans to get rid of Chief Wahoo, [who] is part of our history and legacy.” Lawsuits filed by activists around the time of Dolan’s comments sought to prevent the team from using the “Indians” name and the Chief Wahoo character while playing in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) in Toronto, but a judge later dismissed the legal challenge.
Reflecting on the Washington team’s name change, Smith says, “The backlash here ... has been much less than many predicted. And yes, that’s because the team is winning, but maybe one reason they’re winning is because that whole racist slur thing is finally behind them.”
He adds, “Here’s the thing: It feels amazing to be on the right side of history. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, there’ll be some rough moments, but you won’t regret it.”