The Chief Wahoo symbol was ubiquitous Tuesday night in downtown Cleveland.
The big-toothed, wide-eyed Indian smiled on the caps, T-shirts, and sweatshirts of thousands of fans as they walked to Progressive Field for game one of the Worlds Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. To the fans, Wahoo is something they grew up with, a harmless symbol of a beloved baseball team that hasn’t won a World Series championship since 1948.
But to the 15 protestors outside the field — several from Oberlin — Wahoo and the Indians name symbolize something else: a racist caricature of a people who were victims of an American genocide.
They view him as a reminder of mass murder, broken treaties, and stolen land forgotten and whitewashed into the smiling symbol of a sports team.
“These people are comfortable with the Indians they know. It used to be the cigar store Indian and it evolved into the sports mascot,” said protest organizer Sundance, an Oberlin resident. He is a Muskogee Indian and member of Cleveland American Indian Movement. “Wahoo doesn’t object. He doesn’t tell his colonizer that he’s treating indigenous people poorly.”
As Sundance spoke, he was interrupted by a fan in his early 20s whose clothing included the Wahoo logo. The heckler unintentionally touched on the bloody history of forced relocation of Indian tribes.
“Wahoo, baby! Wahoo! Wahoo!” he screamed. “Get your s—t out of here! Leave! Leave!”
Most fans ignored the protestors, but some did war whoops or screamed insults or profanities. “Get a life. Seriously,” said one. “America! Uh-mare-uh-kuh!”
Dave Michaels screamed at the demonstrators that they were being paid to protest, which the protestors denied. “I’ll come out for free to heckle a bigot like you any day!” Sundance told him.
Michaels, of Columbus, said Native Americans have been treated “terribly” in the past and conditions on Indian reservations remain bad. However, he said calls to remove Wahoo and change the team name are examples of political correctness trumping free speech and expression.
“It’s a mascot. It’s a symbol,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Michaels also mentioned the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota, in which the 7th Cavalry killed at least 150 unarmed Lakota Sioux, many women and children. “How many of those people were alive at Wounded Knee?” Michaels asked of the protestors.
Commenters on the News-Tribune Facebook page were also unsympathetic. While Cleveland AIM has been protesting Wahoo at Indians games since the 1970s, some online posters insisted the protest was media-created and questioned the ancestry of the protestors.
“Why do a bunch of people who are not Native Americans keep pushing the issue?” Rich Buga wrote. “Leave things alone. Chief Wahoo represents strength, leadership, and togetherness.”
The Oberlin Schools’ 2007 decision to change the name of its team mascot from Indians to Phoenix — in response to protests that Sundance was part of — was also mentioned. “As far as Oberlin High School changing the name of their team, there are more people out there who still refer to them as the Oberlin Indians and rightfully so!” wrote Judy Rathwell Wheeler.
However, demonstrator Robert Roche, who has been protesting outside games since 1972, said there’s a double standard about naming a team after an ethnicity or race.
“If they called them the Cleveland Blacks or they called them the Cleveland Jews, there would be a big problem,” said Roche, executive director of the American Indian Education Center, a Cleveland-based nonprofit group. “But it’s OK to do it to us, because they’re supposedly honoring us.”
The team has begun to downplay Wahoo in recent years in response to protests. Protestor Jeff Pierce of Chagrin Falls said it could go further by banning sales of Wahoo and ejecting fans who wear the logo.”They absolutely could phase it out,” he said.
That’s unlikely given the team’s attendance problems. Even during this season, when the Indians led their division for nearly the entire season, there were many empty seats.
Team spokesman Curtis Danburg told us Wahoo will remain on uniforms and players’ caps for home games.
“We are very cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the conversation — our fans’ deep, long lasting attachment to the memories associated with Chief Wahoo and those who are opposed to its use,” Danburg said in an email. “We continue to research our fan base to better understand their perception and stance on the logo, but at present time have no plans of making a change.”
Nonetheless, the protestors say they’ll continue demonstrating on Opening Day and occasionally during the season. Sundance said the protest also opens up dialogue about other issues such as the high rates of teenage suicide and violence against women in Indian tribes.
While most fans ignored or heckled the demonstrators, a few said they supported them.
Supporters included Cubs fan Martin Stainthorp, who said the protests have made him more aware of Wahoo. “The image is offensive and disgusting,” Stainthorp said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune About 15 demonstrators, including several Oberlin residents, protested outside Progressive Field before the first game of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. They want the Indians to stop using Chief Wahoo as the team logo and mascot and they want the team to change its name. Protestors Audrey Kolb of Oberlin, Joe DeMare of Bowling Green, Caroline Meister of Oberlin and 10-year-old Devon Shults of Oberlin shortly before game time.