What a difference a century makes. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called for the Cleveland Indians to get rid of its "Chief Wahoo" logo in an editorial Friday morning for being "racially insensitive." That comes about 100 years after the same paper invented the Indians nickname, and first portrayed the racist caricature in its pages.
The mascot's red-faced, big-nosed cartoon is a "racially insensitive stereotype of Native Americans," they write in an editorial on Friday. "Wahoo contributes nothing to the performance of the Indians on the field and makes the team seem hopelessly backward in the eyes of the world." The editorial notes that ditching the logo is "inevitable," even without their position. "And it's a little unsettling that it hasn't happened by now. Why cling to Wahoo when it so clearly offends?"
In a bit of navel-gazing, the article headline notes the "historic stance" of the editorial board's position. But the announcement is absolutely important. "[F]or the largest newspaper in the city and the state to come out with an official editorial and to plainly call it racist is something else," HardBall Talk writes. It's a stance that goes against most Clevelanders, too. As recently as last year, a reader poll supported keeping the Chief Wahoo logo at about 65-35.
Almost 100 years ago, though, The Plain Dealer was the major force behind the creation of the Indians team name. Team lore says that the name was formed out of respect for Louis Sockalexis, baseball's first Native American player. But the name actually comes from a contest in The Plain Dealer to name the team. Sportswriters there and at other competing newspapers formed a "nomenclature committee" to decide the new name in 1915, Ithaca College sports sociology professor Ellen J. Staurowsky explained in a paper published in Sociology of Sport Journal in 1998.
Indeed, the first reports of the Indians name in the newspaper in January 1915 don't mention Sockalexis, but they do make plenty of racist remarks and stereotypes about Native Americans. "Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They're Indians," read The Plain Dealer headline in announcing January 1915. "The title of Indians was their [baseball writers] choice," the article explains, "it having been one of the names applied to the old National league club of Cleveland many years ago." Cleveland Indians researcher Jerry Strothers dug up the original story from that day, and the caricature and racist cartoon that accompanied the story.
The cartoon is full of insensitive, racist images. In the center, a smiling, long-nosed Native American is labeled by his name "Heap Big Stick." In the right side, one player says "Wukwog-o" to an umpire, the Native American version of rudely saying ching chong bing bong to an Asian person. "When you talk to me, talk English you wukoig," the ump responds in The Plain Dealer artist's words. "That last word is in Indian," the writer explains. "Will it come to this?" In the top right, the cartoon suggests "new rooting lingo for the fans," a series of grunts suggesting a subhuman language.
The name stuck from there, and has led to a number of mascots in the intervening time. The team has been slowly phasing out the mascot for a while now. In 1994, when the team moved stadiums, it left behind a massive neon Chief Wahoo sign which had adorned the previous stadium for 32 years. In October of last year, the team surveyed Indians fans on their feelings toward the mascot. In January, the team demoted its main logo of Chief Wahoo somewhat, replacing it with a blocky C on some of its uniform combinations.
Now, The Plain Dealer has made it clear it is against the use of insensitive images of Native Americans. And it only took 99 years.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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