Chief Wahoo vs. Baseball’s First Indian Player

Chief Wahoo vs. Baseball’s First Indian Player.

Our campaign to end the use of Native American nicknames and mascots by Maine’s public schools has reached the last community, Skowhegan, still clinging to the tenets protected by acceptable institutional racism. With former Penobscot Chief Barry Dana now in conversation with Skowhegan school officials, I’m free to return to tilting with my personal, most formidable windmill – the Cleveland Indians and its controversial, racist caricature Chief Wahoo.

In late August of 2014 I went to Cleveland and spoke “in honor of” Louis Sockalexis at a prominent suburban branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Sockalexis was the first-known Native American baseball player, who inarguably inspired the nickname the team uses and who is most likely the first man to successfully break the color barrier in the professional game.

Recently, at the invitation of the leaders of the autonomous American Indian Movement and the American Indian Education Center in Cleveland, I was honored to join them for what was a massive demonstration for their annual Opening Day protest at the first Cleveland Indians home game, on Friday, April 10. My trip also featured an April 11 speaking opportunity, at Cleveland’s Baseball Heritage Museum, on the grounds of League Park, the original field for the professional Cleveland team, the field Sockalexis played upon from 1897-99.

It’s sad to think, but probably true, that on that August of 2014 trip I may have been the first person ever to go to Cleveland to speak in tribute to Sockalexis.

As the author of his biography, Baseball’s First Indian, I was also fortunate enough to have a meeting then – at their request – with two Cleveland Indians executives, Curtis Danburg, senior director of communications, and Robert DiBiasio, vice president of public affairs, and a college intern doing a summer stint with the team.

Both team officials, understanding that it is not negotiable with me that the team continue its use of an inappropriate nickname or a racist caricature logo, hoped we could continue to find some more common ground for moving forward in properly showing Sockalexis respect. I have already helped – eliminating errors from the text of the Sockalexis biography in the team’s media guide, correcting inappropriate labeling on a painting of Sock at the park, and providing a far more suitable portrait of him for display at Progressive Field.

Though I had to bite my tongue when I heard this, I was especially incensed when I heard DiBiasio state what appears to be the new team “strategy” for continuing its use of Chief Wahoo: The team, he said, has had its uniform design recently approved by Major League Baseball. And, according to MLB rules, teams must not make any changes for three more years.

What complete cowards the Dolan family ownership members are, sending out their representatives to essentially say, “Well, we can’t put an end to the controversy now…because of MLB rules.”

But not so fast, please.

We can’t be talking about the same MLB that approved the cap logos for all but ONE of its 30 teams in 2009, are we? This was a “Stars and Stripes” special edition for Memorial Day that year, with a percentage of the purchase of same going to the Welcome Back Veterans Fund. Yes, MLB dropped Chief Wahoo and used a block “C” cap.

And then in 2013, MLB again axed Chief Wahoo on the Cleveland cap for another “Stars and Stripes” special edition. This time it was for a 4th of July promotion around the league. Again, it was the only team logo MLB saw fit to change on its own.

Suggesting MLB won’t accept a request from Cleveland to change its very upsetting logo is putting the responsibility, unfairly, on baseball’s parent organization, an organization I am betting would be delighted to grant the Cleveland Indians an exemption to finally, at long last, do the right thing.

Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has said it’s the team’s decision to continue its use of Chief Wahoo, but surely neither he nor his successor is interested in seeing the team state that it’s all MLB’s doing that the logo must cause headaches for another three years.

It’s time to join Cleveland activists in standing up to this tyranny. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published an editorial on February 28, 2014, calling for the end of Chief Wahoo; a local, popular magazine, Cleveland Scene**, has long advocated its end. Cleveland City Council member Zack Reed wants to stay on the front lines until the offensive logo is terminated. And American Indian Education Center director Robert Roche is planning to file a $9 billion federal lawsuit against the team for the huge sums of money the team has made off its 100 years of use of an inappropriate nickname and racist logo.

Based on the sea of Chief Wahoo sweatshirts, T-shirts, bobblehead dolls and mountains of other logo-laden knicknacks that run from one end of the team store to the other, I’m guessing $9 billion probably falls short of what Cleveland owners have made on this one vile symbol.

Finally, there is this: The Cleveland team states its nickname and its logo acknowledge and pay tribute to Penobscot Indian Louis Sockalexis of Maine and the history of the team. Yet, the team has failed to reply to or even acknowledge the existence of a resolution, written by the Penobscot Nation Chief and approved by the tribe’s Council, in the Year 2000, to end the use of Chief Wahoo.

Thus, the Cleveland ownership does not have Penobscot approval for Chief Wahoo…and it is completely disingenuous for the team to hide behind an MLB uniform regulation when it is more than obvious that MLB, too, wants to see Chief Wahoo terminated. The time is now.

Journalist and college instructor Ed Rice of Orono, Maine, is the author of Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian. He has a web site at www.sockalexis.info

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