Discontinuing Indians’ Chief Wahoo is only the first step

Credit: Jeeyoon Kim Credit: Jeeyoon Kim

Can you imagine cheering for a team called the “New York Jews” or the “San Francisco Chinese?” What about wearing a hat whose logo is an exaggerated stereotype: a yarmulke-wearing big-nosed man or an excessively slant-eyed man donning a conical hat?

Just thinking about these hypothetical teams is uncomfortable, but one ethnic group, Native Americans, is commonly used as professional sports teams’ mascots throughout the U.S. The Washington Redskins in the NFL has received a lot of flak over the past several years for their blatantly racist name, while the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball, the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL, and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs have also been criticized, albeit to a lesser degree. The Cleveland Indians made a major step towards rectifying their team’s offensive branding this past week.

Last Monday, MLB announced that after the 2018 season — due to get underway on March 29 — the Indians will discontinue their “Chief Wahoo” logo. The logo has long been criticized for the way it depicts Native Americans as a racial caricature, from its bright red skin to the feather poking up from its hair. The mascot, originally appearing with yellow skin and a thinner face in 1948, changed to its current form in 1951 and has long been a point of contention. Native American groups have argued for years that the logo is derogatory, while some diehard fans have defended it. Increasing pressure from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred over the past year prompted the Cleveland club to finally make a change.

The Indians had already been shifting away from the logo for a few years now, using the simple “block-C” logo more frequently. After 2019, Chief Wahoo will disappear from all official uniforms and signs at their stadium, Progressive Field. Fans, though, will still be able to purchase Chief Wahoo merchandise at the team’s shop and in retail stores throughout Ohio. The team will also keep the trademark and still profit off of Chief Wahoo merchandise, although MLB claims this is an attempt to prevent businesses from using the logo in negative ways.

While the removal of Chief Wahoo is a crucial victory for Native Americans, there is still a long way to go before the exploitation of Native Americans for mascots is entirely eradicated. Redskins owner Dan Snyder and the NFL have both opposed changing the team’s name, despite it being widely considered the most offensive example. Although the Braves and the Chiefs have slightly less insensitive names, they have drawn criticism for their fan cultures. Braves fans perform the “tomahawk chop” to intimidate other teams — fans chant to loud music and simulate the action of using a tomahawk with their arms. The Chiefs’ pregame ritual involves a cheerleader riding onto the field on a horse named “Warpaint” waving the Chiefs flag while a special guest bangs on a massive drum.

While the Chief Wahoo logo will soon be gone, this is simply the first long-awaited step that the other sports teams must follow. This is not a matter of being politically correct. This is a matter of removing blatantly racist imagery and cultural appropriation from nationally known institutions that feed into the enduring stereotyping and dehumanization of Native Americans in the U.S.