The Chief Wahoo debate: Is the Tribe’s mascot offensive?

March 26th, 2014


With Opening Day fast approaching in Cleveland, the city is ablaze with posters of manager Terry Francona smiling down upon his beloved fans, banners of Nick Swisher sharing his electric grin and advertisements sporting the shy and humble Yan Gomes. While not as prominent as in previous decades, Chief Wahoo also still adorns several artifacts in downtown Cleveland. His wide grin can be spotted in the city’s most popular bars and restaurants, while Indians fans sport jackets often have his face stitched on the sleeve, keeping them warm from Cleveland’s bitter winter winds.


On Wednesday, March 19, Sundance, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, visited John Carroll University and outlined a history of Chief Wahoo for faculty and students. He has been the director of the Cleveland American Indian Movement since 2007, and he spearheaded the movement to change the Oberlin Public School System team and logo from the Indians to the Phoenix.


Sundance’s presentation explained why Native Americans from Northeast Ohio feel offended by Cleveland’s beloved mascot. He compared this symbol to the swastika symbol heralded during Hitler’s regime as a dictator in Nazi Germany.


“In American history, an Indian head is a symbol of a genocide,” Sundance said.


Sundance has been leading protests of the name “Cleveland Indians” and the team’s mascot since 2007. Protests are held both on Opening Day and about twice a month at Progressive Field.


“As far as Wahoo goes, we strongly believe, the Cleveland AIM, that changing Wahoo is not enough. You have to change the team name as well as the logo,” said Sundance.


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Sundance has reached out to both Indians owner Larry Dolan and Progressive Insurance, the official sponsor of the Cleveland Indians. Sundance challenges Progressive’s support of the Indians, saying, “White supremacy is not ‘progressive.’”


He contested that Native Americans face enough suffering in society without the tormenting of Indians fans, as they consistently place at the lowest level of every socioeconomic indicator.


“We have the lowest life expectancy, the least education; we are the poorest of people in the land; we have the highest teen suicide rate; we have the highest rate of incarceration; we have the highest rate of violence directed toward us by other ethnicities-300 percent more,” he said.


Cleveland fans who still support Chief Wahoo argue that organizations such as Cleveland AIM should focus more on these issues rather than something as trivial as a mascot or logo.


“There are so many teams that are historical figures, and I think the Native American is just a historical figure,” said JCU freshman Steven Schmitz. “It’s the same thing with the Knights or Cavaliers.”


Another counterargument in favor of Chief Wahoo is that most Native Americans are not offended by the symbol. However, Sundance disagrees with this statement, relating this evidence to a study done in Sports Illustrated several years ago.


“[Sports Illustrated] claimed that 75 percent to 80 percent of respondents said they had no problem with Wahoo, no problem with the Indians team name,” Sundance said. “Now, Sports Illustrated has been criticized for that. They went to talk to people who don’t live under the symbol. They didn’t come talk to us in Cleveland. They went out to some reservation out west. They have not disclosed their survey methods nor what questions were asked, so that survey is invalid.”


“I’m 25 percent Native American, and I’m not offended,” freshman Kyle Curtis said.


Regardless, Sundance speaks for the entirety of Cleveland AIM, saying, “We feel, the people who live here in Cleveland who are Native people, we find it offensive. We don’t need anybody else’s support.”


“I think not nearly enough people showed up,” said freshman Sarah Maroun, who attended Sundance’s on-campus talk. “Honestly, if I had it my way, this would have been a mandatory panel.”


Sundance concluded his talk by saying, “If you are a Native person, please rally around anything that is considered to be self-identification. If you are not, please rally around anything that seems to be self-identification. What we don’t want is for our colonizers to put one over on us.”