A new article from The Atlantic breaks down why the Cleveland Indians’ decision to mostly leave its Chief Wahoo logo behind should only be the beginning of professional and college sports teams abandoning language and images that dehumanize Native Americans.
In today’s (February 6) “Looking Beyond Chief Wahoo,” Alex Putterman starts by detailing the history of teams using Native-inspired names and logos:
Professional sports in America have been dotted with Native American-inspired team names and logos since at least 1912, when Boston’s National League baseball team first began going by the “Braves.” The Cleveland Naps became the Indians three years later, and before long similar names had become a veritable trend. Today, Major League Baseball still has the Indians and Braves (now in Atlanta); the National Hockey League has the Chicago Blackhawks; and the NFL has the Kansas City Chiefs and, of course, the Washington Redskins. Several NCAA colleges, such as Florida State (Seminoles) and Central Michigan (Chippewas), have teams named for indigenous groups as well. Most, but not all, of these teams also use logos featuring some sort of Native imagery.
Putterman goes on to mention some of the movements that have been organized around toppling these teams’ continued use of this imagery in the face of protest from the people they treat as caricatures:
Pretty much wherever there is a Native nickname, logo, mascot or tradition there is someone attempting to change it. The Washington football team draws the most attention, with protests and lawsuits earning headlines each season, but the outcry extends beyond the nation’s capital. In Chicago, a fan named Anthony Roy who is part of the Ojibwe tribe has recruited several thousand people to support a Facebook page calling for a new Blackhawks logo. In Atlanta, the famous “Tomahawk Chop” chant has persistently come under fire. In Utah, the state’s flagship university has resisted calls to give up its Utes nickname and drum-and-feather logo. And in Cleveland, many residents have long demonstrated against not only Chief Wahoo but also the team name. The Washington football team owner Dan Snyder has steadfastly insisted his franchise will never change its name, while executives and administrators with these other teams have mostly downplayed the subject.
And a loud and passionate segment of the Native population sees racism in the very act of naming teams after indigenous groups. To Suzan Harjo—an activist of Cheyenne and Muscogee ancestry who has been protesting Native team names and logos for decades—such references are inherently demeaning and objectifying. “And when you objectify, you dehumanize. And when you dehumanize, you target,” Harjo said. In her view, the perception of Natives as “things” leads to discrimination and violence. “When you treat living human beings as if they are objects, that is wrong, and that is not honoring the living people,” she said.
While many teams and fans argue that changing a team’s identifying information is too heavy a lift, Putterman argues that the ease of the Cleveland baseball team’s announcement proves exactly the opposite:
After decades of pushing back against activists and insisting their logo honored American Indians, Cleveland undid its offensive caricature in a single press release. (“We are cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the discussion,” the statement read in part.) And though some fans have expressed unhappiness with the change, their resentment will likely fade with time. Hundreds of high schools and colleges across the country have already eliminated Native names and mascots, and successive generations of supporters seem to have adapted without issue. At Stanford University, for example, anger over the school’s 1972 decision to change its nickname from the Indians to the Cardinals has mostly disappeared. Before long, Cleveland fans should similarly adjust to Chief Wahoo’s absence.
Read the full article over on TheAtlantic.com.