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Smithsonian Curator Weighs in on Cleveland Indians’ Decision to Retire ‘Racist’ Logo

Chief Wahoo, says Paul Chaat Smith, is a prime example of how the appropriation of Native American culture can be terribly problematic

Philip Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement for Ohio, leads a protest of the Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo mascot before a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers Friday, April 10, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
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Since 1948, the Cleveland Indians’ uniforms have been adorned with the team’s official logo: a cartoonish, grinning Native American man known to fans as “Chief Wahoo.” On Monday, however, Major League Baseball announced that the team would be retiring the logo, finally heeding the demands of protestors who have decried Chief Wahoo as racist and offensive to Native Americans.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement that the popular symbol will be removed from team uniforms by 2019—the same year that Cleveland will host the All Star Game. Chief Wahoo will also no longer be seen on banners and signs at Progressive Field, the Indians’ stadium.

In the statement, Manfred noted that Paul Dolan, Cleveland’s chairman and chief executive, expressed concerns that doing away with the logo would upset fans “who have a longstanding attachment to the logo and its place in the history of the team.” But he went on to say that “the club ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball.”

Paul Chaat Smith, an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian (and a self-professed baseball fan), is unambiguous in his thoughts about Chief Wahoo. “[I]t's an outrageous, racist caricature,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “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.”

Smith is well poised to reflect on the complex interplay between Native American and broader American culture. He is one of the curators of “Americans,” a new exhibit at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian that explores how indigenous images, names and stories have become ubiquitous in American life—as Native Americans were being systematically oppressed. Chief Wahoo is among the symbols on display at the exhibit; the logo is just one example of the ways in which many sports teams have appropriated names and imagery from Native American culture.

Smith explains that the use of native symbols by major sports franchises typically involves “a very long and convoluted story that goes back many decades.” But it is possible that the tradition has its roots in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, which saw a band of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne swiftly rout an army of federal troops. In the aftermath of the battle, Smith explains, Native Americans “became associated with being fiercely intelligent and confident fighting force”—and this in turn might explain why Native American imagery and names are commonly used by sports teams.

“The original intent is not to denigrate your own team,” Smith explains. “That doesn't really make sense. So in the original notion this is meant to be flattering.”

Chief Wahoo, however, is a prime example of how the appropriation of Native American culture can be terribly problematic. The logo’s origins trace back to 1932, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer used a cartoonish drawing of a Native American man to illustrate its coverage of the Cleveland Indians. Chief Wahoo became the team’s official logo in 1947, after former owner Bill Veeck commissioned a cartoonist to design an image for the team. The logo has gone through a number of iterations since then, but it has consistently remained a toothy, absurd caricature.

Criticism of Chief Wahoo has long roots, but it ramped up in 2016, after the Indians qualified for the World Series for the first time in nearly two decades. Notably, that year an indigenous Canadian activist by the name of Douglas Cardinal tried—unsuccessfully—to seek a court injunction to block the Indians from using uniforms depicting Chief Wahoo while playing in Toronto.

“There aren’t really other examples in all of popular culture and advertising in which you can point to something that's quite as offensive as Chief Wahoo,” Smith says. “So this one was really indefensible, in a way that it’s not a surprise that MLB had to finally insist it be removed.” 

But Smith also understands why the logo invokes a fierce protectiveness in Indians’ fans. “The bonds between a city and its sports team are really deep and profound,” he says. “When I see sports fans defend their mascot—even [an] obviously racist caricature like Chief Wahoo—what they're really defending is their generations of commitment to that city, to that team, their family, their friends.”

In reality, Chief Wahoo is only going into partial retirement. The logo will continue to appear on merchandise sold in stadium shops and retail outlets, though these items will not be available on M.L.B.’s website. And Chief Wahoo will continue to stay on Indians’ uniforms for another year.

Still, while the Cleveland Indians’ move to phase out its historic logo may not be a wholesale rejection of Chief Wahoo, in the ongoing fight against Native American cultural appropriation, Smith calls the decision a “significant victory.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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