Cleveland Ballclub Will Eventually Get Around to Changing Racist Nickname

Cleveland's major-league baseball team has long acknowledged the racism of its nickname and iconography while being slow to do anything about it.
December 14, 2020, 5:41pm
Cleveland Indians mascot Chef Wahoo prior to the game between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field during the Indians Home Opener on April 1, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Activists protest against the use of the Cleveland Indians mascot Chef Wahoo prior to the game between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field during the Indians Home Opener on April 1, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team chose “Indians” as its nickname more than a hundred years ago, as the U.S. government was still finding new ways to claw land away from tribes while forcing Native people to assimilate. 

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Now, after decades of criticism from Native American groups about the name, the team is finally going to change it, according to the New York Times

The team announced in July that it would finally review the name, as racial justice protests that often targeted racist monuments and statues swept the country. 

“In the coming weeks, we will engage Native American leaders to better understand their perspectives, meet with local civic leaders, and continue to listen to the perceptions of our players, fans, partners, and employees,” Cleveland owner Paul Dolan said in a statement at the time. “We feel a real sense of urgency to discuss these perspectives with key stakeholders while also taking the time needed to ensure those conversations are inclusive and meaningful.”

The backlash to Cleveland’s name, though, as well as other teams' use of Native Americans as logos, mascots, and nicknames—the list includes MLB’s Atlanta Braves, the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs—has existed for decades. And the team has been gesturing at addressing that backlash without actually doing so for quite some time.

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In 1997, three Native protesters were arrested for protesting the team’s name and its wildly racist caricature of a mascot, Chief Wahoo. In 1999, the Society of Indian Psychologists wrote a statement saying that mascots and symbols using Native people “seriously compromises our ability to engage in ethical professional practice and service to the community.”

The Cleveland team said it would deemphasize Chief Wahoo as a mascot in 2016 (before using caps bearing his visage in the playoffs that year). It stopped using Chief Wahoo as a mascot in 2019; since then, the logo has been a block letter C. This past season, the team wore road uniforms, which said “Cleveland” rather than the “Indians” displayed on home uniforms, for its home opener as a symbolic acknowledgment of the racism of the team's nickname. “We know change is due,” said star shortstop Francisco Lindor.

The Times reports that the process of change will be in line with this exceedingly slow and halting drip. One source familiar with the team's plans told the paper the team will play the coming season with the racist nickname it has deemed it necessary to drop.

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And at least one local Native American group says the engagement Dolan promised hasn’t happened, and that it’s “dubious” of the claim that the team is consulting with Native American leaders. “Our fear is that, once again, the franchise will attempt to make dupes of the Native community and use this occasion to weave a false narrative in support of transitioning from ‘Indians’ to ‘Tribe’—which is unacceptable,” Sundance, the director of the Cleveland chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM), said in a statement responding to the Times story. 

Cleveland is just the latest team to face a long-overdue reckoning with its nickname. In July, the Washington National Football League team announced it would finally drop the nickname “Redskins.” The team has still not decided on a new name; Washington team president Jason Wright recently said the team could keep “Washington Football Team” as a long-term solution. The Times reports that Cleveland is itself considering going a period without a name.

The backlash from the right is already beginning. President Donald Trump, who has made the dubious claim that he was the best baseball player in New York when he was in high school, criticized Cleveland’s move in a Sunday tweet. (Trump signed an executive order earlier this year ordering the Department of Justice to prosecute protesters who tear down racist monuments on federal property.)

“This is not good news, even for ‘Indians,’” Trump tweeted. “Cancel culture at work!”