Opposition to Cleveland Indians’ Name and Logo to Get Bigger Spotlight at World Series

Monday, October 24, 2016
Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo logo, offensive to many, gets a cleaning (photo: Ronald C. Modra, Getty Images)

 

By David Waldstein, New York Times

 

The Cleveland Indians will return to the World Series for the first time in 19 years Tuesday, and with that will come renewed protests over the team’s name and Chief Wahoo logo, a depiction some consider a highly offensive caricature.

 

Opposition to the name and logo was renewed last week during the American League Championship Series in Toronto when Douglas Cardinal, an indigenous Canadian activist, sought a last-minute court injunction to prevent the team from using uniforms depicting the Indians’ name or the Chief Wahoo logo while in Toronto.

 

Judge Tom McEwan declined the petition, but a Native American advocacy group in Cleveland was taking note. Along with its planned protests outside all the upcoming World Series games in Cleveland, the group is thinking about Cardinal’s legal strategy.

 

“I really loved the way he went about bringing forth the case, that it is a human rights violation in opposition to Canadian laws on human rights,” said Philip Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio. “We never thought about that before. I believe it could be something we can pursue ourselves.”

 

Yenyo, who is from Cleveland, was part of the protests at the 1997 World Series, in which the Indians played the Florida Marlins, and he has helped organize protests on opening day in Cleveland for the last two decades.

 

He said the goal was to educate fans, many of whom cherish the Indians’ name and the Chief Wahoo logo. Chief Wahoo has been around in different forms since 1947, the year before Cleveland won its last World Series. The Cleveland team itself had numerous names in its early history, including the Blues, the Bronchos and the Naps. But before the 1915 season, the club became the Indians, according to Baseball-Reference.com, and it has been Indians ever since.

 

That puts the team into the middle of a sustained and often emotional debate. Many people vigorously oppose the use of Native North American names and images as mascots and logos, saying they are demeaning and worse. The Chief Wahoo logo in particular stands out because it is a caricature.

 

“It is racist — that is all there is to it,” Cardinal said in a telephone interview from China, where he was attending a conference. “I had been thinking about the problems we have as a community with the issue of suicide, and I think there is a direct correlation between these kinds of depictions of our people as inferior and as caricatures to be mocked. It is wrong and it must stop.”

 

Cardinal still has claims about the Cleveland Indians’ name pending in two other arenas — the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal — and he said that he hoped to achieve some sort of success with his efforts before the Indians return to Toronto for the 2017 regular season.

 

Canada itself is not immune to this issue. Some of its sports teams have used names, nicknames and logos that refer to indigenous people in that country. There are, for instance, the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, whose name has drawn protests. In 2013, Ian Campeau, an Ojibwe man, turned to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to bring suit against the Nepean Redskins, an amateur football team near Ottawa. The team subsequently changed its name to the Eagles.

 

Another case was brought by Brad Gallant in Mississauga, Ontario, to prevent the use of public funds for teams using indigenous nicknames or mascots.

 

“I just want my kids to be able to go play hockey without having to feel like they are inferior,” he said.

 

Monique Jilesen, one of the lawyers for Cardinal, said the main platform for their case against the Cleveland Indians was most likely to be human rights organizations. The lawyers are seeking to establish that the name Indians is discriminatory.

 

“The reason we brought an injunction was because here was the unprecedented platform of Cleveland playing Toronto in the playoffs, which they had never done before,” she said.

 

In connection with the injunction attempt, Major League Baseball issued a statement saying it was open to dialogue about the issue outside the realm of the courthouse, and the condensed timetable of a playoff series. Cardinal said he was eager to engage in that process immediately.

 

In Cleveland, the Chief Wahoo logo has been the target of some critical commentary in the media, and the Indians themselves have made efforts in recent years to reduce the prominence of the logo, giving more visibility to an alternate “C” as a block-letter insignia on Cleveland caps.

 

Mark Shapiro, who was a longtime front office executive with the Indians and the team president before going to work for the Blue Jays, has stated that the Chief Wahoo logo personally bothered him.

 

Yenyo said: “Them going to the block ‘C’ as a major logo is a step in the right direction. But we’ve got to have the name changed, too. If you change the logo, it doesn’t solve the problem. It only gets rid of that image.”

 

Numerous professional teams in the United States, most notably the Washington Redskins of the NFL, have faced fluctuating waves of opposition over the years for names that have Native American connotations. The Atlanta Braves have drawn criticism for their name and the “Tomahawk Chop,” which fans engage in during games.

 

The Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL have also been a target of criticism, although less so than teams like the Redskins and Indians.

 

On the college level, a long battle with the NCAA over Native American nicknames, logos and mascots has led numerous schools in recent decades to make changes.

 

St. John’s University changed its nickname from the Redmen to the Red Storm, and Dartmouth, once known as the Indians, became the Big Green. Marquette went from Warriors to Golden Eagles, and the University of North Dakota, after a long fight with the NCAA, evolved from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks.

 

The Cleveland Indians said the organization was “sensitive to both sides of the conversation” about the logo and continued to examine the issue. The team, like MLB, declined to elaborate.

 

But the World Series will go on, with the Indians seeking their first championship since 1948 and Chief Wahoo front and center on their new World Series caps. And on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, some people will be feeling discomfort.

 

One of them is Jesse Wente, a leader of Native Earth Performing Arts, which says it is Canada’s oldest indigenous performing arts company. He supported Cardinal’s case against the Indians and most likely will not watch the World Series.

 

“I am a big Blue Jays fan, but I can’t watch when they play the Cleveland team,” he said. “I won’t let my kids watch, either.”

 

To Learn More:

Supreme Court Takes Case That Could Affect Trademark Protection for Football Team’s Offensive Name (by Sam Hananel, Associated Press)

Federal Judge Affirms Cancellation of Washington Redskins Trademark as Offensive (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

NFL’s Redskins Compile List of Offensive Trademarks to Justify its Offensive Trademark (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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