The Curse of Chief Wahoo
Are we paying the price for embracing America's last acceptable racist symbol?
By Peter Pattakos
It's not the most visible of movements, and it seeps into the public consciousness only for one afternoon each year. This time, a group of about 20 took part in the protest, marching outside Progressive Field and bellowing slogans like "Enjoy the Game, Change the Logo." Some placed pieces of Easter candy where arriving fans could find them; attached to each marshmallow Peep was one in a series of fortune-cookie messages: "Would Jesus Wear Wahoo?" "People, Not Mascots." "The Louis Sockalexis Myth Is a Lie."
The ballclub—and most of its fans—is not hearing any of it.
"I love Chief Wahoo," Diane McMaster-Murphy exclaims, smacking a Peep off the post where a protester had placed it. "I'm an American," adds the 57-year old white lady from Akron, adding a twist of patriotism to an otherwise indiscernible molecule of logic.
Six and a half decades after its creation, the Chief remains the only professional sports logo in the Western world that caricaturizes a race of people. But in the land of Wahoo, no reason is still reason enough.
A sociology professor at Ferris State University in Michigan, Pilgrim is also the founder and curator of the school's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. There, an astonishing 7,000 piece (and growing) collection of artifacts depicts the history of racist portrayals of minorities in American popular culture.
"These were caricatures with a purpose: to legitimize patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation," says Pilgrim. "These caricatures don't just exist to exist; they both reflect and shape attitudes toward a group."
Pilgrim explains how the exaggerated features serve their discriminatory purpose by emphasizing the differences of the depicted race, thereby reinforcing the idea that the caricaturized race is inferior. He cites a passage from renowned author Julius Lester that gets right to the point, underscoring Wahoo protester Villafane's concern for her grandchildren:
"When I read Little Black Sambo as a child," Lester wrote, "I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he ... [With this image], society had made it clear to me [that the exaggerated features] represented my racial inferiority—the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red protruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures."
A researcher discusses the origin of the Cleveland Indians name:
Of course, it didn't hurt that the new name also happened to reinforce the image of Natives as anachronistic savages, the ballclub a fearsome force to be reckoned with. "In place of the Naps, we'll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts," wrote the Cleveland Leader in announcing the name change on January 17, 1915. In fact, none of the reports from the four daily Cleveland newspapers even mentions Sockalexis, but each is replete with negative stereotypes.
The Plain Dealer of the same day included a cartoon titled "Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They're Indians." The panel depicts, among other things, a frowning umpire scolding a Native American who says to him, "WUKWOG-O."
"When you talk to me, talk English, you wukoig," the ump replies. (The cartoon helpfully explains of "wukoig": "That last word is in Indian.")
"We won, they lost," the thinking went. "We were the good guys, they were the bad guys. They got what they deserved for being un-Christian and un-American. Now we can laugh at them like we laugh at unruly children and pets."
So there was no "honor" or "respect" in the name or mascot. The so-called honor people talk about now was a recent invention to erase the team's racist history. It's a blatant "cover your ass" move. "Let's make up something about respect," the owners tell themselves, "to divert attention from our Sambo-like mascot."
Other mascots are disappearing from the landscape, but not Chief Wahoo:
David Currie, a 73-year-old Euclid resident who identifies himself as "a WASP through and through," joins the Wahoo protesters every year because he believes the symbol is an embarrassment to his hometown. You'd never see a team called the Cleveland Negros or the Cleveland Jews, accompanied by a caricature of the race, he says. "There's no difference between blackface and redface. One is just as wrong as the other. It's just that here there's nobody to beat you up for wearing the redface."
Wahoo, incidentally, is all but nonexistent in the Indians' spring-training home of Goodyear, Arizona, where the Native American population is significantly higher than it is on the modern-day shores of Lake Erie.
Why don't the cowardly team officials just say what they're thinking? "We know Chief Wahoo is a racist affront to Indians, but there aren't enough Indians in Cleveland to matter. As long as they don't have the numbers to shut us down, we'll continue to offend them."
Then there's the infamous Sports Illustrated poll, which I and others have lambasted:
Yet others are less convinced by the SI poll. "If you're going to trust a Sports Illustrated report on Native American issues, you might as well have Redbook report on the logging industry," says Farrar.
A group of 34 sociologists who organized to immediately challenge the survey pointed to other studies that reached opposite results. They also note that SI never disclosed how the poll was conducted, how participants were recruited, or what questions were asked. And more pertinent to Wahoo: There's nothing contained in the SI report to suggest its poll results distinguished between team names and symbols, nor between caricatures like Wahoo and more realistic representations. In fact, the report's penultimate paragraph concludes by noting that "many Native Americans find the mascots and imagery more offensive than the names."
Many anti-Wahoo activists are loath to engage any evidence of Native support for symbols like Wahoo. Andy Baskin, a morning personality at 92.3 and sports director at Cleveland's NewsNet5, recently spoke on his radio show about visiting a reservation in the Southwest and seeing children wearing Chief Wahoo hats.
"There were African Americans who were OK with sitting on the back of the bus too," Farrar responds.
The Jim Crow comparison is an apt one. These people are apparently content to be mindless savages in the eyes of most Americans.
Anyway, good article. For more on Chief Wahoo, see 40th Annual Chief Wahoo Protest and Gaillard's Use of Chief Wahoo.