The Cleveland Indians are on their biggest national stage since their last visit to the ALCS in 2007, and the franchise is celebrating by rubbing its racism in the faces of every person tuning in to watch baseball at the peak of its season. It’s a very strange thing.
The Indians have chosen to wear their Chief Wahoo caps, which depict a widely-derided racist caricature, in each of the five games they’ve played in the postseason thus far. This is even more ridiculous than it appears at first, because in April of this year—the beginning of the baseball season—Indians owner Paul Dolan said the team would move away from using the demeaning depiction of a supposed Native American, instead making the block-letter “C” the team’s primary logo. I’m not sure what definition of “secondary” the Indians are using, but centering the team’s visual identity around Chief Wahoo by using him on the team’s main postseason cap doesn’t fit any definition I’m aware of.
When Dolan first said the team was moving away from using the Wahoo logo, he said the team had “no plans to get rid of Chief Wahoo, it is part of our history and legacy.” Here we are in October, though, and despite claims that Chief Wahoo is no longer at the forefront of the team’s image, it’s very easy to look at the team’s uniforms and see he is. The Indians aren’t changing shit, and they should just say as much.
The Indians can’t deny that the depiction of Chief Wahoo fosters disrespect of Native Americans—in fact, their claim that they would deemphasize the logo tacitly acknowledged as much. This isn’t an abstract thing; you can see it at their park, where Indians fans show up to games in redface and headdresses. Would any MLB team let in a large group of fans who showed up in blackface, thrusting their Stubhub QRC codes at the ticket-takers? Probably not; the Indians, though, hardly have the moral high ground when they’re selling redface imagery at shops and kiosks all over the park.
This is a function of a vastly larger problem, which is that racism against Native Americans is just not viewed with the same seriousness as other kinds of racism in America. It’s embarrassing, and it’s even more embarrassing that it’s necessary to convince many Americans that racism against Native Americans is real. We as a country have been taught highly revisionist histories, but the uncomfortable truth is that the founding and expansion of the country were the outcome of acts of genocide, erased largely by disenfranchising and dehumanizing the victims. Wahoo, whether or not devoted Indians fans want to admit it, is a symbol of that process, and so are the uses to which he’s put.
Baseball has already embarrassed itself by nonchalantly allowing the use of demeaning nicknames and racist caricatures, but the most revealing humiliation might have occurred last week, when beloved Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez praised the Cleveland Indians after ALDS Game 3 by using Native American stereotypes while his panel-mates laughed along.
During the TBS postgame show, Martínez made a seriously ill-advised joke about “hunting Indians” when he was an active player, then said he would “pay tribute to the Indians” and put his hand to his mouth, imitating a war cry. Martínez attempted to apologize quickly after the clip circulated, saying, “I send my apologies if I was misunderstood when I was trying to pay tribute to the Cleveland Indians on the TBS post season show.” The clip, in case you think critics misunderstood:
Martínez’s mockery of Native Americans in the name of the Cleveland Indians is a telling example of just how the franchise “honors” indigenous peoples. Martínez is from the Dominican Republic, after all, and while that country, like most other Latin American countries, has its own appalling history of mistreatment and marginalization of indigenous populations, the imagery he’s invoking here is highly and specifically American.
Who do you think taught Martínez—or any other immigrant—that such markers of savagery as the word “hunt” or a childish interpretation of a war cry are associated with Indians? He didn’t grow up in the American school system, where curricula often include whitewashed histories of the interactions between European settlers and indigenous Americans; these stereotypes and tropes spread his way nevertheless, through such distinct cultural products as, well, sports teams. Here is a consequence of coming up with excuse after excuse to permit the use of racist caricatures and nicknames in sports: an immigrant learning that part of the American experience involves degrading Indians.
None of this will influence Cleveland fans to stop showing up in headdresses and redface to baseball games at the ironically named Progressive Field. “Native Americans have other issues to worry about,” they’ll cry, and they’ll have a point, as many Native Americans will tell you. The games will go on.
The use of a shitty depiction of a Native American as the primary logo for a baseball team will remain wrong and harmful, though, in ways that aren’t up for debate for any empathetic and critically thinking American. There is a case that will be heard by the Supreme Court that may eradicate or confirm a particular aspect of trademark law that technically disallows the registration of disparaging trademarks, and the court’s decision may solve this issue. But for now, it is the Cleveland Indians’ choice to use the symbol despite their high-minded claims that they are distancing themselves from it, and that right is laid out explicitly in the Bill of Rights written and signed on the stolen, sacred soil that was renamed “America.”