In October, during the Cleveland Indians’ evening-long playoff run, a few of the team’s fans fumbled their way into minor Internet infamy. Three men in the seats of Progressive Field had painted their faces bright red and doodled larger-than-human smiles over their own, achieving the likeness of their team’s Chief Wahoo logo. The camera crew for TBS, which televised the game, cut to shots of them throughout the night—maybe to endorse their fanaticism, or perhaps to rubberneck at a sociological car crash.
Deadspin and a few other websites took note of the pseudo-chiefs, and a screen-capture subtitled “That awkward moment when you are racist on national television” garnered a few clicks online. But the uproar, as with most of today’s electronic rage, and like the baseball team’s postseason, was fleeting.
The name and logo controversy in Cleveland is a murmur compared to the roar that has surrounded the Washington Redskins this season, a conversation stoked by a league commissioner and President Obama, among others. Yet the Indians brand—like the Redskins, Atlanta Braves, and Kansas City Chiefs—represents a final goal for race-conscious activists who have seen similar Native American symbols removed from U.S. high schools and colleges in the past half century: Stanford’s Indians became the Cardinal; Marquette’s Warriors turned into the Golden Eagles; and even the Redskins at Miami of Ohio evolved to Red Hawks. But in professional sports, Redskins—by name in D.C. or by caricature in Cleveland—remains.
While the Cleveland Indians’ name raises its own set of questions, disputes tend to focus on its logo: Chief Wahoo, the scarlet Indian head that’s either gleaming and proud or an embarrassing caricature, depending on who describes it. In 1947, Bill Veeck, the Indians’ owner, wanted a logo for his team, which had adopted its moniker more than 30 years prior. He commissioned work from a Cleveland company that designed police badges, and a 17-year-old employee, Wally Goldbach, came up with the logo’s first iteration. Goldbach’s Indian had yellow skin, a long nose, and a ponytail. But within a few years, Wahoo, as named by the local sportswriters, lost the ponytail and acquired a red face and triangular eyes that look like they’re in on a joke.
Today, the logo is in its eighth decade and the name is nearing its centennial, but thanks to a bizarre set of connections to an Ohio college town, they may not last much longer. Oberlin, Ohio, is a Cleveland exurb with a pedigree of progressiveness, home to a liberal arts school that was among the nation’s first to admit both black and female students. Yet for many years, Oberlin was just another town where Native American symbols were fair game for sports; the lights of the school district’s fields and arenas shone down on a home team called the Indians.
This caught the attention of Sundance, a Muskogee man who had recently moved to Oberlin and felt the team name desensitized his neighbors to the dehumanization of Native Americans.
“Everybody knows about Indians, but nobody knows about Indian people,” Sundance says. Maybe the name was a well-meant effort to remember Indian people, he says, but to him, remembrance was part of the problem. Mascots and logos are usually symbols of the past—relics—and he wasn’t ready to be mummified. “I think that it does contribute to us being seen as people who no longer have a future,” he says. So he petitioned the local school board for a name change, and that led to town meetings in which people flocked to passionately lament the insignificance of the mascot issue. It required a series of discussions, but in 2007 the Oberlin Indians became the Phoenix, and Sundance escalated his efforts to a big-league battle.
Sundance now directs the Cleveland American Indian Movement and spends many of his working hours trying to run Wahoo out of Cleveland. He organizes demonstrations in front of Progressive Field, where he and several acquaintances protest, often with hand-drawn signs and the protection of volunteer guards, in the shadow of Bob Feller’s statue. He insists there’s no deep meaning to this specific spot, but Feller was arguably the greatest player to let the text “Indians” scroll across his chest, a World Series champ and war veteran who was as vintage an American figure as most people can fathom.
The protests outside of Progressive Field sometimes lead to constructive dialogue with fans, but Sundance hopes to move the conversation inside the stadium. He wants to express his concerns about objectification and “mummification” in a face-to-face meeting with Larry Dolan, the club’s owner. Dolan has his own history in Oberlin: He used to sit on the Oberlin College board of trustees, which acerbated a contingent of students and faculty who perceived racism in the Indians brand.
Dolan addressed these detractors in December 2000. According to the Oberlin Review, Dolan made it clear that he believed he and Redskins owner Dan Snyder belonged on different moral planes: “If we were the Redskins, the day after I owned the team, the name would have been changed.”
So in Dolan’s universe, it seems, there’s a difference between a red-skinned cartoon and the Redskins name. Of course, his ethos might not sit well with either proponents or opponents of the D.C. football brand. But Dolan—to his credit, and in contrast from the bullish Snyder—may be relenting on his position, or at least the Indians’ recent actions allude to the possibility. The club’s “Block C” alternate logo has increasingly appeared in place of Wahoo on game-day caps. And Wahoo still winters in Florida: In 2009, the team moved its spring training site from Florida to Arizona, but Wahoo stayed in the Sunshine State, far from Arizona’s larger population of Native Americans who might be offended by the image.
These are nuanced changes, their subtlety likely lost on three dudes who became evanescent TV and Internet sensations for their race-mocking garb. Such quiet, almost sheepish moves also do little to satiate Sundance and other advocates of Native Americans. It leads one to wonder why Dolan, even if he doesn’t comprehend others’ concerns, doesn’t just capitalize on another difference between his Indians and Snyder’s Redskins: that business isn’t booming in Cleveland. The Indians rank in the lower third of MLB team valuations, according to Forbes (whereas the Redskins rank third highest overall among NFL teams), and the team filled the lowest percentage of home stadium seats in the league, according to ESPN. If Dolan were to overhaul the name and logo, whose patronage would he lose?
Snyder can evade the momentum of racial sensitivity by stressing that he doesn’t have an obvious alternate name at his disposal. Dolan, however, could adopt his team’s sobriquet, “Tribe.” The team’s unofficial theme song is, “We’re Talkin’ Baseball, We’re Talkin’ Tribe,” and fans use the mantra “Roll Tribe” as a social media hashtag and a sign-off from their sports radio calls. Dolan, unlike Snyder, can rebrand his franchise while keeping fans connected to its past—that of long-ago championships and the vaunted, sometimes loaded, bats of its ’90s teams.
For all the criticism Snyder faces from the White House and the NFL’s office, the effectual push toward a Redskins revamp could, in a convoluted way, come from tiny Oberlin. Imagine the heat Snyder would face if Dolan—he of the moral superiority, supposedly—reformed his team’s identity and snatched whatever public goodwill is available in this situation. It could be a crucial development for both Cleveland and D.C., and Sundance, working with the confidence from his school district victory, hopes to move Dolan toward just that.
But Dolan would have to face what many other people—Native Americans in Arizona or Ohio, and those with TBS or an Internet connection—already know: that a slur and a depiction of a slur communicate the same thing.