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Native Groups Look to Retire the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo

Controversy over the Washington Redskins team name is building hope among Native Americans that the Cleveland Indians logo could be retired.
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Amid the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins’ team name, some Native American groups hope public outcry turns toward a different team’s symbol, more than 300 miles to the northwest: Chief Wahoo, the bright red, wide-grinning face of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

“It’s been offensive since day one,” Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache and longtime opponent of the Indians’ team name and logo, told NBC News. “We are not mascots. My children are not mascots. We are people.”

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Roche said his group, People Not Mascots, is preparing to file a federal lawsuit against the Indians over the team name and logo. He expects the suit to be filed by the end of July.

The Cleveland Indians declined to comment to NBC News.

Groups like People Not Mascots hope that new pressure will be applied to the Indians following last Wednesday's decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which stripped the Redskins of its trademark and declared the team name to be “a racial slur.”

The 2-1 vote came after widespread protests — from several news organizations to President Obama. Chief Wahoo's growing list of critics includes U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio who signed a letter with 50 other Senators opposing the Redskins’ team name. Brown supports keeping the Indians name but thinks the team should retire Wahoo, a spokeswoman said this week.

The Redskins said it will appeal Wednesday’s ruling. The team won an appeal that challenged a similar 1999 trademark ruling.

“We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo,” said Bob Raskopf, the team’s trademark lawyer.

“We are not mascots. My children are not mascots. We are people.”

However, intensifying objections could hit a professional team’s bottom line if fans pressure sponsors to abandon the team, said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.

“Team sponsors, more so than league or venue sponsors, may feel the heat from fans and advocacy groups due to their primary attachment to the franchise,” Carter said.

The Redskins could see sponsors walk away and corporate sales dry up if the team is seen as racist, Vanderbilt University economics professor John Vrooman told NBC News, but the trademark ruling is unlikely to affect the other professional sports teams that use Native American-inspired names or logos such as Chief Wahoo.

“This decision will probably not have a domino effect, because the Redskins name is uniquely a disparaging racial slur,” Vrooman said.

In fact, some professional teams have developed amicable relationships with Native American communities.

Andrew Johnson, executive director of the American Indian Center in Chicago and a Cherokee, said his group has a good relationship with the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, whose team name and logo reference a Sauk Indian who resisted the seizure of his people’s land in Illinois.

The team last year gave the center a $60,000 grant so it could build athletic facilities, it invites Native American veterans as guests of honor to several games a year and it discourages fans from showing up in feathers and face paint, Johnson said.

“If you went to a Hawks game 20 years ago, you would see all the costumes and comical stuff. You really don’t see too much of that today,” said Johnson, whose center serves the 100 tribes located in the Chicago area. “The Blackhawks have made an overt effort not to televise them. They try to discourage it.”

Less galling to some is the fact that the Black Hawk was a person, while the Indians and Redskins — and the “tomahawk chop” used by fans of the Atlanta Braves — are generalizations, Johnson said.

“I think if you look at the two most disparaging symbols you have Chief Wahoo and the Redskins,” he said.

Chief Wahoo, in his current form, has been used by the Cleveland Indians for more than 60 years. The team last year began giving more prominence to an alternative logo, a block letter C, causing speculation that Wahoo is on his way out — something the team has denied.

In Cleveland, there seems to be general support for Chief Wahoo, said Mike Brandyberry, managing editor of the website Did The Tribe Win Last Night?, and any controversy about the symbol isn't a topic of daily conversation. Last year, the site agreed to publish an essay from a fan who called for retiring Chief Wahoo, but it also offered to publish any responses from fans wanting to keep the logo.

“When you think of the Cleveland Indians, you think of Chief Wahoo.”

“We didn’t receive one,” Brandyberry said. “I would say the majority of Indians fans and Clevelanders support Chief Wahoo,” but added that he personally is ambivalent about a logo change.

A movement on Twitter, #DeChief, began in March encouraging fans to remove Chief Wahoo’s likeness from hats and memorabilia on their own. Another social media campaign, #keepthechief, was created to support the logo.

Bob Rosen, president of the Indians fan organization The Wahoo Club, is firmly in the latter camp.

“Chief Wahoo is smiling, he’s happy. I don’t look at it as degrading — it’s a symbol of a positive thing,” said Rosen, 54, whose group has about 1,650 members. “When you think of the Cleveland Indians, you think of Chief Wahoo.”