Saturday, May 3, 2014

Why Chief Wahoo Must Die

I’d seriously hoped the first pitches of the 2014 season would 86 any banal offseason talk and finally dig in to some béisbol. Sucks for me, this isn’t the case in Cleveland. In the absence of free-agent splashes, logos filled Cleveland offseason chatter, and this shouting has spilled over into the regular season.

In January of this year, Chris Creamer at reported Cleveland had officially relegated Chief Wahoo to secondary status, promoting the Block C in his stead.
Then in late February, the editorial board of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that Chief Wahoo should be retired immediately.

Now, a few games into the 2014 season, Paul Lukas again brings Cleveland’s smiling mascot to the forefront in his latest column. The discussion centers on DeChief-ers, Cleveland fans who deface or remove Chief Wahoo from their team merchandise. Through a peculiar chain of events, your dutiful author ended up as a spokesman of sorts for the DeChief camp. The story includes a brief profile (and beefcakey picture!) of yours truly.

When Cleveland should be talking about our completely bad-ass Jim Thome statue, or the strength of our 5th starter, or if Asdrubal Cabrera will be trade bait come the deadline, we’re again shouting across a canyon to one another about the merits of Chief Wahoo.

There’s only one way this fire, sometimes fizzling, sometimes a roaring inferno, will ever be squelched. Chief Wahoo has to go. Now.

If you take away Chief Wahoo, then wouldn’t Notre Dame have to kill their Leprechaun to avoid offending the Irish? ‘Yankee” was once a derogatory term, what about New York? And Couldn’t Steel Workers object to the Pittsburgh Steelers? Where does it end?

This, the most common argument proposed against the removal of Native American nicknames from collegiate and professional sports, is ignorant and misguided. The core of any Wahoo discussion isn’t the symbol itself but who applies it and how. The Fighting Irish, at least historically, are actually Irish. Same with the Yankees and any other examples one wishes to lump into this hare-brained argument.

Think of it this way: a white guy can’t walk unannounced into a black neighborhood and holler, “What up my n—s?” Merits of the term (even among blacks) aside, it’s not a term for whites to appropriate freely.  Though a less odious example, it’s the same with a white-owned, white-run Cleveland baseball team applying a Native American caricature to their team.

Good counterpoints to this “…But Notre Dame!” argument are the Spokane (WA) Indians, a minor league baseball team, and to a lesser extent, the Florida State Seminoles. Spokane uses the name Indians with the full cooperation of the Salish Tribe. The team even employs a uniform which spells out the team name in the Salish language. In a similar vein, Florida Seminole tribes have given the go-ahead for FSU to apply Seminole iconography to their sports teams.

This is just Liberals looking for a cause. Natives don’t really care about Chief Wahoo.

It’s probably fair to say the Venn diagram of Wahoo-detractors and liberals forms a single circle. However, Civil Rights supporters in the ‘60’s were reviled as nosy liberals. The same goes for suffragists. While a smiling cartoon certainly isn’t on the level as the 19th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act, we must speak of any cause independent of its supporters.

Do Native Americans really care about a stupid cartoon? Yes and no. Most living on reservations have much bigger problems to tackle. Extreme poverty, poor educational standards and drugs sit higher on any to-do list.

There’s also the oft-cited study Sports Illustrated survey from 2002 (and another from the AP in 2004) claiming Natives support the use of Wahoo. Refutations of this study aside—and there aremany refutations—this is old information. Citing a 2002 study to defend Chief Wahoo in 2014 is like using cocaine to treat a headache. Once upon a time, this was the most correct prescription, but opinions evolve as new facts come to light.

As a middle-class, Midwestern white dude, my personal opinion on Chief Wahoo is basically toilet fodder. It’s not my culture being appropriated. So I must defer to the opinion of Native Americans. A Native group protested Wahoo outside a San Diego / Cleveland game this past week. Another Native American group pickets outside the Cleveland home opener each year. Editorials and surveys compiled by the Indian Today Country Media Network consistently show Natives want Wahoo gone.

Wahoo supporters then counter by asking, “why make a change when it’s such a small minority of people who want Wahoo removed?” The answer to this is simple morality: how many people is it okay to offend? Is it okay to offend 1 person? 100 people? 1,000? Where do you draw the line and who draws it? Even if Anti-Wahoo Native Americans are a raindrop in the American bucket, it’s their heritage, their symbolism. If Natives want Wahoo scrubbed from sports jerseys, then it’s our duty to get out the soap and water.

Chief Wahoo is meant to honor Native American heritage and Cleveland player Louis Sockalexis.

This is a much thicker knot to disentangle. Joe Posnanski recently penned an excellent history of Louis Sockalexis and the “Cleveland Indians” name. Go read it; it’s a fantastic article. The TL;DR version is that historical records show the team probably wasn’t named in honor of Sockalexis, despite the copy Cleveland’s PR department chugs out year after year. With the original intent murky, we again have to default back to the Natives themselves. If Natives deny being honored by Wahoo (and they do), then off he goes.

Now you’re being hypocritical. Taking away Chief Wahoo is taking away my heritage as a Cleveland sports fan.

Wahoo can’t be the average Clevelander’s heritage, as it was stolen from Natives to begin with. Removing Wahoo is kin to returning looted art to its original home. As a compromise, I’d offer Moses Cleveland as a good replacement logo. He’d look good on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, no?

But Chief Wahoo is tradition!

If you want Tradition, go listen to Fiddler on the Roof. Upholding behaviors on the grounds of tradition alone is short-sighted and dangerous. The same argument–but it’s our tradition!–was used to defend laws preventing blacks and whites from marrying. Our traditions help connect us to the past, but we must weigh them against the greater good and reject them once the cons outweigh the pros.

By the same token, change for the sake of change is equally stupid. However, removing Chief Wahoo is change with good reason.

You can’t love Cleveland Baseball if you don’t love Wahoo. (And here I quote) “Go cheer for them asses in Detroit!”

Saying one can’t love a team if they don’t love its logo is ludicrous. First, love isn’t blind acceptance. Love is a vow to constant work, in good times and bad. If you truly love something or someone, you stand side-by-side and try to build something better.

Removing the political element, teams change logos every year. Bucco Bruce gave way to the Jolly Roger. Flying Elvis replaced Pat Patriot. The Tampa Bay Rays, the Dallas Stars, The Baltimore Orioles, the Carolina Panthers…the list of teams who’ve recently updated their logos goes on and on (and on). Do these new logos diminish their teams’ history? Do people who prefer these new logos love their team less? Don’t be stupid; of course not.

I understand Chief Wahoo is intertwined into many fans’ fond memories, but Cleveland Baseball isn’t a color or logo or a name. Call it whatever you want; Cleveland Baseball is Tris Speaker, Bob Feller, Jim Thome, Nap Lajoie, Larry Doby, Albert Belle. It’s 455 straight sellouts at Jacobs Field. It’s being crushed by the 1997 World Series only to come back eager for 1998. It’s a 10-game win streak to vault into the 2013 playoffs. Cleveland Baseball is cramming into my family’s Ford Aerostar van with my parents, my grandparents and my brothers; day-tripping to Jacobs Field, sitting in the top row of the top deck in melting heat, and loving every second of it. Cleveland could play their games in clown suits and I’d still pay money to watch.

Whether a follower of @DeChiefWahoo or @KeepChief, the fact is clear: Wahoo is on his way out. His smiling presence is being lessened every year. Instead of pulling the band aid slowly and bitching at one another for the next ten years, let’s put on our big boy pants and rip the damn thing off already. Please, so we can finally start talking about baseball again. Chief Wahoo is an irrevocable part of Cleveland baseball history, but it’s time he became just that: history.

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