I have wrestled with the issue of Chief Wahoo since I was old enough to realize that other people’s feelings mattered. Even as I write this, I am not certain which side I will be on by the end of it. Growing up, he was as much a part of being an Indians fan as the massive stadium and reading Russ Schneider. But that massive stadium had bathrooms that not even drunk people would use, so not all symbols are positive.
I believe the name Indians was meant to honor Native Americans, but using a caricature as a mascot certainly makes that a tougher sell. I am Irish, and I think I have as much right to be offended by a leprechaun prancing around at Notre Dame games as Native Americans do at Chief Wahoo. But it has never bothered me. There are a lot of contradictions and ambiguities with this issue that I have never wrapped my arms around, possibly because the Indians are one of the great passions of my life and admitting that they are wrong on this would be like questioning the integrity of a family member.
The Indians have obviously never figured this out, either. They have a mascot, Slider, who has nothing at all to do with Native Americans, and they have gone back and forth half a dozen times between Chief Wahoo and various versions of the letter C on their caps, with a script I also used on occasion. I suspect that the letters just don’t sell, or else they would go to them exclusively and avoid the controversy.
A poll taken by the Washington Post twenty years ago found that nine percent of Native Americans found the Washington Redskins’ nickname to be offensive. It seems to me that “Redskins” is much more derogatory that “Indians,” but their logo is more dignified than Chief Wahoo. Still, is pissing off nine percent of any group enough of a problem to take corrective action? My personal experience is that nine percent of the people I know spend their lives looking for something to be pissed off about, so if it weren’t this it would be something else.
Still, our history tells us that cultural stereotypes become less tolerable as time goes by. African-Americans are a perfect example. Fifty years ago they were referred to as Negroes, a term that is almost never heard anymore. For several decades the term “black” was the primary description used, but that is becoming less and less prevalent. Part of the reason is the blurring of racial identification as mixed marriages become more common, but a more significant reason is that calling someone “black” just seems disrespectful. Think of all the ethnic slurs that were a part of normal conversation forty years ago that you never here anymore—if you’re too young to remember, watch an episode of “All in the Family” and ask yourself if a character like Archie Bunker would be allowed today. Society seems to evolve in this direction, and it seems inevitable that in another fifty years calling a group of people “Indians” will seem archaic. If the Indians took action now, it would be much easier than if they wait until nine per cent becomes ninety and they seem to be succumbing to public pressure rather than being sensitive to it. These things go much more smoothly when you are ahead of the curve rather than behind it, and it is better to be seen visionary rather than reactive.
Besides, the marketing opportunities are enormous. If the Indians change their name to something that catches on, every baseball fan in northeast Ohio will need a new wardrobe. While the revenues from merchandise sales are divided evenly among all thirty major league teams, there are ancillary benefits from motivating fans to make additional trips to the team shops and souvenir stands that will eventually impact the bottom line. There’s probably not a large segment of the population that is basing their ticket buying decision on the name of the team, but when you’re 29th in attendance how many people can you afford to ignore? While there are those who believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the annual articles about the protests that detract from the coverage of Opening Day are as close to bad publicity as it gets, and doing away with those has to enhance the public profile of the franchise.