Erika D. Smith

World Series offers timely reminder that racist mascots need to go

Three signs held by fans after Game 1 of the World Series show the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo. Calls have grown for the team to discontinue Wahoo, whom some see as a racist caricature.
Three signs held by fans after Game 1 of the World Series show the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo. Calls have grown for the team to discontinue Wahoo, whom some see as a racist caricature. The Associated Press

At 46, the chairman of the Wilton Rancheria tribe, Raymond Hitchcock, is proud to rattle off stories about his American Indian heritage. But when he thinks about the first time he laid eyes on Chief Wahoo – the “cheesy-looking,” red-faced, grinning Indian who serves as the mascot of the World Series-bound Cleveland Indians – he gets uncomfortable.

He was a teenager in Carmichael, one of the only brown kids in a mostly white school where he sometimes got made fun of for being a “dirty Indian.” One day, a friend handed him a baseball cap and said Hitchcock should have it because he’s an Indian and Wahoo is an Indian.

“It made me feel embarrassed to be a Native American,” Hitchcock said. “It hurt, actually. It’s like, ‘Is that what you think of me?’ 

I heard similar stories growing up in Cleveland, as family friends cursed the Wahoo logo supposedly created to honor Louis “Chief” Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who played baseball in the 1800s. They hated it so much that I joined them for a protest the day Jacobs Field – as Cleveland’s Progressive Field was called back then – opened to the public.

The year was 1994. I was 15. I held my sign as groups of slightly drunken, middle-aged men scowled at me as they walked toward the entrance. Some were shirtless with their chests painted. A few paused long enough to slur their version of a war chant.

More than two decades later, not much has changed.

On Tuesday, as the Indians got ready to play and hopefully win their first World Series since 1948, TV cameras panned over a line of players, all proudly wearing hats emblazoned with the Chief Wahoo logo.

Then, as a woman belted out the last lines of the national anthem – “the land of the free, home of the brave” – Cleveland fans, not a trace of irony on their faces, let tears roll down their cheeks and held their hands to their hearts, right above the Wahoo logos on their sweatshirts.

There were protesters, too. A handful of them, just like always, standing outside Progressive Field holding signs, demanding that Cleveland and Major League Baseball become more progressive.

“Wahoo sucks! Kick him off the team!” “Indians are people, not mascots.”

Later, photos of men in redface and a kid in a feathered headdress floated across Twitter, putting a definite damper on my hometown pride in the Indians for drubbing the Chicago Cubs 6-0.

At what point is enough just enough? Not only for Cleveland sports, but for teams across the country, from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Washington Redskins, to the many colleges and high schools where fans beat wannabe war drums and don ridiculous facepaint for every game.

California has at least started to do the right thing. After years of prodding, Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed Assembly Bill 30, which bars the use of the word “Redskins” as a school team name or mascot. The four schools affected have until Jan. 2 to phase out the word once used by white bounty hunters to describe the Indians they scalped.

What’s sad is that California, home to the largest number of American Indians in the country, is the first and only state to take this modest step toward human decency.

Meanwhile, dozens of K-12 public schools across the state, as well as the country, are still employing every stereotype of an Indian imaginable, from fake beaded jewelry, to headdresses with plastic feathers to dances and chants to demand a touchdown or foil a free throw.

It happens in the name of the Warriors and the Chiefs, and yet few of these fans seem to care that they are using a culture as costume, trashing traditions that have spiritual meaning, whether it’s bringing rain or praying for a good harvest.

“There’s more behind it,” Hitchcock said, “and not understanding that is the disrespectful part.”

And yet these schools, like professional sports teams, don’t want to change. Nor do their fans. The reasons are always the same, too.

“We’ve had this name and this mascot for generations.” “It’s not racist. It’s about team pride.”

Sure it is.

Asked about Chief Wahoo, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred put it this way: “I understand that particular logo is offensive to some people, and I understand why,” he said during a radio interview with ESPN’s Mike & Mike. “On the other side of the coin, you have a lot of fans that have history and are invested in the symbols of the Indians.”

That these are the go-to reasons – and that so many Americans actually agree enough to stay silent – speaks volumes about something much larger and much darker than our collective love of sports. There’s something very wrong when people who wouldn’t dream of putting on blackface for fear of being labeled racist are just fine putting on redface and prancing around on national TV.

This is about racism and privilege; about which groups of people get slacktivism-style outrage from the web-connected masses and prompt boycotts by corporations when they’re treated poorly, and which groups are dismissed and ignored.

It’s about which lives matter and which lives don’t.

After all, how many times did Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump call Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” in a not-so-subtle-knock on her supposedly phony Native American heritage? And how many times did his rallies of mostly white supporters roar with laughter and break into what they imagine to be warlike whoops and Tomahawk chops?

The answer is far too many.

And why is it OK that a company, over objections from the Obama administration, is building an oil pipeline through lands that, at the very least, border sacred burial sites for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe?

The answer is it’s not.

If anything, the events of this year, particularly the bruising presidential election, have made Wahoo – and the many, many other mascots of its offensive ilk – look even more outdated than it did on Opening Day in 1994.

So I’m happy to hear that, after the World Series, Manfred plans to meet with the Indians owner Larry Dolan about the future of Chief Wahoo versus the perfectly palatable “Block C” logo.

Wahoo has been around since 1915. He needs to go.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith