Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo Target of Opening Day Protests Again – and It’s Time to Finally Take Notice

CLEVELAND, Ohio —  Some people are making a big deal about the 100th anniversary of our baseball team adopting the name Indians.

The team's owners are not. And I haven't heard much on the topic from fans.

But a group of Native Americans and other activists, who for 20 years have staged Opening Day demonstrations against the team name and the Chief Wahoo mascot, see the anniversary as a rallying point.

That's why Ferne Clements of The Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance — who has been behind demonstrations against the Indians since 1991 – has invited national activists to Cleveland next week. Among those coming to town are Clyde Bellecourt, a co-founder of American Indian Movement; and Charlene Teters, dean of the Institute of American Indian Arts and founder of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.

They are expected to participate in the Opening Day demonstration on April 10 and a conference on racism on April 11 at Cleveland's Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in Tremont.

Clements said the Committee of 500 Years plans to kick off events on April 9 with a news conference at the downtown United Church of Christ on Prospect Avenue.

Over the years, baseball fans have largely ignored similar demonstrations. And local media outlets have offered only obligatory coverage that gets buried among the stories of fans and celebration. 

Last year's Opening Day protest didn't draw any unusual attention from fans — but produced a great photo that sparked national notice and some discussions about team mascots.

The photo showed Native American Robert Roche and baseball fan Pedro Rodriguez, who painted his face to look like Chief Wahoo, in a heated discussion. Cleveland attorney Peter Pattakos, who was helping a film crew make a documentary about the annual demonstration, helped stage the photo.

Pattakos met Rodriguez minutes earlier and questioned him about his support of Chief Wahoo. Pattakos then asked Rodriguez if he would make the same arguments to faces of Native Americans. Rodriguez said he would, so the two men headed to the demonstration. 

The faceoff made for a perfect photo but it never reflected the reality: Major League Baseball refuses to seriously engage Native Americans on the issue. Rodriguez listened more to Native Americans last year than our baseball chiefs.

A year after the photo went viral, the team is still sticking with Chief Wahoo, and has made no major announcement about the anniversary of the name. My colleague, Marc Bona, pointed out earlier this year that on January 15, 1915, the Cleveland Naps changed their name after the team's namesake, player-manager Napoleon Lajoie, left for Philadelphia.

As you likely know by now, sportswriters named the team the "Indians." For decades, we were led to believe the name referred to Louis Sockalexis, a Native American who played for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897 to 1899. But the notion that the writers were honoring Sockalexis with the name has been shown to be largely a myth.

Update: My colleague, Elizabeth Sullivan, who is the opinion director of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, shared with me an editorial written in 1915, just days after the team changed its name to Indians. The editorial supports earlier arguments that the name is intended to honor Sockalexis. The editorial says that baseball fans "throughout the country" began to refer to the team as the "Indians" because of the Native American Indian's baseball skill. The editorial said the name "serves to revive the memory of a single great player."

The team name is not as offensive as its mascot – the buck-toothed, red-faced Chief Wahoo, who was informally adopted by the team many years later. Others and I, including The Plain Dealer's editorial board, have called for Chief Wahoo's retirement. The chief is racist, even if it wasn't intended to be.

Cleveland leaders are spending a lot of energy of late sprucing up city's image. Native Americans have long wanted to add the team name and Chief Wahoo to the list of things that need to be "rebranded."

Baseball fans should finally hear them out.

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