Good Riddance: the History of Chief Wahoo and the Cleveland Indians

Since 1928, the Cleveland Indians have worn variations of a red-faced racial cartoon on their uniforms. But finally, after over 90 years, the Ohio baseball team will get rid of their mascot, a Native American caricature named Chief Wahoo, for the 2019 baseball season.

Chief Wahoo has long been a point of tension among fans and protestors, and for good reason. While supporters claim that the mascot came from Native American baseball player Louis Sockalexis, the Cleveland Naps only changed their name to “Indians” because of the success of the Atlanta Braves. Team managers believed that part of this success could be attributed to the “team spirit” that came with a native person as their mascot. Racist names were in fashion and the Cleveland Indians followers.

In the 21st century, however, names that are based on racial groups are more commonly regarded as unacceptable. Native American rights organizations have been holding protests outside Indians games for years, trying to convince spectators that the name does not “honor” and is intrinsically offensive. Before January 2018, however, their efforts were unsuccessful. In 2014, a video of Chief Wahoo fan and a protester went viral. The Indians fan, dress in redface and a Native American headdress costume, defended his mascot by saying that “whether or not you guys like it, [Chief Wahoo] is going to stay.”

Now that the Cleveland Indians really are getting rid of their racist mascot, fans are more infuriated than ever.

What many people don’t know about Chief Wahoo is that the logo itself, the red pointy face with the large nose and a feather behind the head, is directly tied to the character Sambo. Sambo, a racist caricature of a black man from the 1800s, depicts African Americans as being ignorant, passive (inherently slave-like) and unable to speak proper English. The character’s popularity surged during the Jim Crow era.

A picture book portraying “Little Black Sambo” on its cover.  (Vice News)

While the cartoon used to show up in commonly in popular culture, from children’s books to restaurants to newspaper cartoons, it is now considered incredibly offensive. As a culture, we have come to the general consensus that this caricature depicted black people in a demeaning manner. Many assume that something this arbitrarily offensive would never be acceptable by today’s standards.

That assumption, however, is not true. Chief Wahoo is essentially a carbon copy of Sambo. The only difference is the color of their skin. Many activists have asked Cleveland Indian fans: how would you feel if the name was the Cleveland Blacks instead of the Cleveland Indians? How can anything this racist be not only acceptable but celebrated in 2018? How can it be so celebrated, in fact, that it is the symbol of a popular sports team?

via cleveland.com

While they will keep the name “Indians” for the 2019 season, the changes the Cleveland Indians are making is a small step in the right direction. They are only one of the many teams shrouded in controversy over their racist logos, including (but not limited to) the Chicago Blackhawks, the Atlanta Braves, and the Washington Redskins. And while changes like this are not easy, the name change symbolizes Cleveland’s attempt to address a blatantly racist history, and while it may be flawed in many ways, it the first step towards real change.

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