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.