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Simon Moya-Smith Retiring Chief Wahoo is just another way for sports to utilize racism for profit

The dehumanization of this land’s first peoples has, and will continue to, pay dividends for the Cleveland Indians

Image: A man holds an anti-mascot button to protest using Indians as mascots for sports teams
A man holds an anti-mascot button to protest using Indians as mascots for sports teams.Mike Simons / Getty Images file
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After word got out early Monday that the Cleveland Indians will no longer don the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms come 2019, the Twittersphere was ablaze with approbation for what the team did — or, more accurately, was forced to do. Meanwhile, I (and others) took notice of what the team has not done.

They haven’t banned fans from wearing redface and headdresses at the field. They haven’t abolished Chief Wahoo. And they haven’t apologized for enabling racist behavior nor creating a hostile environment for Native Americans in Cleveland and in Ohio.

So far, all the team has done is do what the league has told it to do, as evidenced in an announcement by Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr.

How can something no longer be appropriate for “on-field use” but be appropriate for the fans in the stands?

“Over the past year, we encouraged dialogue with the Indians organization about the Club’s use of the Chief Wahoo logo,” he wrote. Manfred, Jr. went on to explain that Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan said his team’s fan base has a particularly strong affection for that logo. “Nonetheless, the club ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball,” he added.

“Did you see what the team did? What a win, huh?” a friend and journalist said to me over the phone after he heard the news.

“It’s a cheap thrill — a meatless bone,” I responded. “The team just reacted to pressure from the league."

Fans, though, can still purchase hats, jerseys, T-shirts and beer can coolers with that rotten, racist logo emblazoned on them at Progressive Field in Cleveland and in Goodyear, Arizona, where the club holds its spring training.

But how can something no longer be appropriate for “on-field use” but be appropriate for the fans in the stands? Something that’s offensive remains offensive, regardless of its location.

The owners will continue to heavily profit off the dehumanization of this land’s first peoples with sales of its merchandise.

And while the players and coaches and batboys will no longer be permitted to wear that nasty caricature of a Native American on their sleeves and lids, the owners will continue to heavily profit off the dehumanization of this land’s first peoples with sales of its merchandise.

In 2016 alone, the team pulled in more than double in merchandise sales than the average club, CBS-Cleveland affiliate WOIO reported. Phasing out Wahoo will likely make some people race to buy more stuff with his likeness, and those who buy newly emblazoned merchandise to replace their old will simply add to the club’s bottom line.

Team executives will still saunter to the bank, most likely in Chief Wahoo hats.

This form of hostility aimed at Native Americans is not uncommon; the Cleveland Indians are not alone in their obstinacy and incongruity. There’s also the Washington NFL team whose name is a dictionary-defined racial slur — a word that was used to describe the targets of organized genocide campaigns. Meanwhile, Native Americans, who are one of the smallest Census-classified racial minorities in the United States, are also more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic in the country according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

This form of hostility aimed at Native Americans is not uncommon; the Cleveland Indians are not alone in their obstinacy and incongruity.

Other professional sports teams that dehumanize Native Americans include the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chicago Blackhawks and, of course the Atlanta Braves with their despicable tomahawk chop and chant.

Racism against Native Americans in this country is tightly woven into the fabric of the myth-riddled American narrative (The Declaration of Independence itself refers to indigenous people as “merciless Indian savages”), and in sports — local amateur or professional — this old-timey, antiquated discrimination is excused as good old American fun.

“I’m not ‘playing Indian,’” a Chiefs fan in redface once told me at party. “It’s the color of the team.”

“That would make sense,” I said, “were the name of the team not a ‘Chief.’”

This country has a long way to go to recognize indigenous peoples as neighbors and doctors and lawyers and journalists, rather than just mascots.

And in Cleveland, opening day has, in past years, been a vicious scene, as demonstrated in a local news video that shows fans of the team shouting at protesters of the name and logo “Get over it” and “You need a hobby, like stringing beads.”

A common argument against such protests by hardcore fans and political, mostly right-leaning apologists is to suggest that Native Americans have more significant problems in need of addressing.

But in 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate abolishment of Indian mascots because they have been empirically proven to harm the mental health and stability of our kids. So, yes, there are a lot of issues in Indian country, but there are few as imperative or as easy to address as one shown to harm our children, who are already prone to suffer from depression and have higher rates of suicide than any other population.

This country has a long way to go to recognize indigenous peoples as neighbors and doctors and lawyers and journalists, rather than just mascots. It’s high time to effect real change in Cleveland and around the country.

Change the name. Drop the mascot. Do what’s right.

Simon Moya-Smith is an Oglala Lakota and Chicano journalist. His new book, “Your Spirit Animal is a Jackass,” published by Minnesota University Press, will be available Fall 2018. Follow him on Twitter @SimonMoyaSmith.

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