by Angela Bilancini
On Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day, Belt contributor Peter Pattakos, who writes the Cleveland Frowns blog, went to the annual protest against Chief Wahoo. and later posted thestory behind the picture.Since then, Pattakos’ picture and post has gone viral, and has been written about and discussed by Keith Olbermann, YahooSports, Deadspin and many other outlets.
This debate may be catching national attention, but it is not a new one to Clevelanders.
In 1995, when the Indians were playing in the World Series against the Atlanta Braves and I was in the seventh grade, I wrote an article for my school newspaper in Avon Lake about whether Chief Wahoo and the name “Indians” were offensive. Here is the pro-Wahoo argument I remember making, in a nutshell: “It’s to honor Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American baseball player, and what about the Fightin’ Irish?”
I’m sure I absorbed the ideas from what people were writing in The Plain Dealer and the Indians PR office at the time, but 19 years later, the best pro-Wahoo arguments Cleveland can throw out are those of a 12-year-old.Actually, 30-year-old me thinks that the name “Indians” is likely salvageable – Clevelanders would have to start making it into a true honor instead of just repeating that line ad nauseum while knowing almost nothing about real Native Americans. (We could start with our own regional history: Cleveland’s Native Americans were a small and nomadic group, living here in the warm months and traveling south in the winter — smart.)
Further ahead in Cleveland history, the renaming of the team in 1915 occurs because star player and namesake Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie was traded from the then-Cleveland Naps. “Indians” was a throwback nickname that had been used casually while Sockalexis played around 1897, but even in 1915 it wasn’t intended as a permanent name. The announcement in The Plain Dealer read that the new nickname was “but temporarily bestowed” until the team could “earn some other cognomen which may be more appropriate” Sockalexis himself was a pretty tragic figure who joined the team already an alcoholic and was eventually mocked in the press for what they termed his “Indian weakness.”
The drinking cut his career short. So it was in fact at the time, in a shadowy historical way, meant to be an honor. It remains to be seen whether the time has come for some other cognomen.But the chipping away at the defensibleness of Chief Wahoo is accelerating. With us since 1947, he embodies a lot of warm memories for fans. That familiarity, rather than overt racism, is I think what makes the best of us want to keep him around. But guys, he’s not even a chief. That single eagle feather means he’s a brave (chiefs have full headdresses) and a warrior wounded in battle (the eagle feather is a spiritual symbol). His name, Wahoo, is an expression of exuberance as well as a Dakota name for a spindle tree. He’s a very imaginary Indian.
Which has worked in Cleveland for a long time because there’s such a small Native American population to speak up about the symbol on a day other than the home opener, and to offer the mostly non-Native American population of Cleveland the example of a human being standing in front of them and expressing their views on the mascot. But that’s a poor excuse for Indians fans.
The Indians and Wahoo are part of our shared history here. Rather than being erased, they should evolve as we evolve. Retiring the Chief is a step in the right direction. Perhaps the team name will stay and we’ll do the right thing and make it an honor. Me, I’m just as ready for a throwback Naps jersey to honor our deadball era French-Canadian hero.
Angela Bilancini is the Managing Editor of Belt.