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The demise of Chief Wahoo

Cleveland’s logo phase-out is a small win in the fight against racist mascots.


Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

As an admissions officer at Dartmouth University, Phil Gover made a point to visit a Native charter school in New Mexico, in 2009. Gover, who is of Paiute, Pawnee and Comanche descent, had heard about the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, and he was curious. What he saw inspired him to start his own charter school in Oklahoma City. “I had never been in an educational environment where you could be who you are as a Native person,” Gover told me this week. “Your Native identity could be central to who you are to your peers and teachers.”

Gover is still building out ideas for his school and searching for a permanent space. He wants to recreate the sense of identity and pride he felt among the students at NACA for Native students in the Oklahoma City school system. Meanwhile, Gover is among the many Native Americans across the country applauding this week’s decision by the Cleveland Indians to phase out the use of their Chief Wahoo logo. The red-faced caricature of a Native man with a wide-toothed grin and a single feather has been decried as racist for decades. While the baseball team will continue to sell items adorning the logo in its stadium shop, players will no longer wear it on the field, nor will it appear as the team’s official logo.

The Cleveland Indians will stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms beginning in 2019.
Health experts have said for years now that the continued use of Indigenous peoples as mascots has harmful effects on the mental health of Indigenous children. Indigenous students report they find Native mascots offensive and demeaning, and they negatively affect their self-esteem. Experts also agree it fosters the idea that it’s acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior.

For Gover, as for many of us, it’s not just about how those images are perceived by Native students that is important. “I can make sure my son knows what those images are and understands that, and he can build a cultural armor to withstand it,” he said. “I can give him that. But I can’t give that to his classmates. I can’t affect them the same way I can affect him. At the end of the day, he spends way more time with those kids than he does me. So, what we teach our children about other cultures matters a lot. It governs the things they do and say to each other, how they treat each other. I saw that reflected in his schools in Virginia, and his schools here in Oklahoma City.”

As I discussed recently in this column, explaining those images, which are prevalent at high schools across my state of Oklahoma, to my son is important and necessary. But he too has experienced discrimination from his peers, and I can’t change how those children are taught in their homes. The problem is compounded by a system-wide lack of adequate education on the history of Indigenous peoples and their relationships with this country. A study of schools from 2011-2012 found “that nearly 87 percent of state history standards failed to cover Native American history in a post-1900 context, and that 27 states did not specifically name any individual Native Americans in their standards at all.”

Researcher Sarah Shear said her study was sparked by questions from students in her social studies class. “I gave a class about Indigenous stereotyping,” she said. “Some students looked perplexed and asked the basic questions: How many Indigenous peoples are still alive, what is a reservation, do Indigenous people still live on reservations?”

And when students don’t even realize that not only do Native peoples still exist but that they sit in the same classrooms as them, it should be no surprise they see no problem with the culture promoted by powerful sports organizations. Especially when no other race is subjected to such treatment.

“Some of the arguments you get is that they point to the mainstreamness of these images and names,” Gover said. “‘Redskins’ is cool because it’s part of the NFL, one the most powerful organizations in our country. Baseball is America’s pastime, and losing Chief Wahoo has to mean something.”

It’s unclear if the decision, which was not only endorsed but actively encouraged by Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, will finally persuade the NFL team in the nation’s capitol to do away with their use of both a Native logo and a racial slur as a name. Although, it seems unlikely, given team owner Dan Snyder has adamantly stated he will never change the name, no matter how offensive Indigenous peoples have told him they find it.

When it comes to Snyder, many Natives are echoing Philip Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio. “I don’t understand why they’re drawing this out,” he told the Associated Press, discussing Cleveland’s decision to wait a year to remove Chief Wahoo. “It doesn’t make any sense to me, unless they want to continue to make what’s basically blood money. Just make the leap already.”

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.