Wahoo Chic 

Protest in the heart of the light-beer nation.

The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the bars around Jacobs Field were packed Monday for the Indians' home opener. By 10 a.m., the deck at Pete & Dewey's was standing-room-only. Slackers who had taken the day off basked in the sun, munching Italian sausage sandwiches and downing 16-ounce cans of Miller Lite.

Just a few yards away, a group of about fifty Native Americans, college students, minority activists, and hippie holdovers were staging their annual protest against the team's logo and nickname. But the psychic gulf was much wider.

"Get a fucking job, you asshole," yelled one fan at Tom Pearce, a member of the American Indian Movement, who came from Louisville, Kentucky, to protest.

"Fans see us as trying to rain on their parade," said an undaunted Pearce. "We'd like to see more people from the traditional civil rights movement here. We feel like it's going to get bigger every year, because we're right."

The protesters, including noted Native American activist Russell Means, didn't amount to much more than a drop in the sea of Wahoo that overtakes downtown at least 81 times a year. Still, that didn't discourage them. On the contrary, protest groups have stepped up their efforts over the past month.

Last week, five protesters who were arrested after burning Chief Wahoo in effigy at the 1998 opener filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Cleveland Police Department and former Chief Rocco Pollutro. The suit alleges wrongful arrest, illegal imprisonment, and violations of the protesters' free speech rights.

At a press conference preceding Monday's protest, Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, announced that his group would file a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians in the next month. Bellecourt and other members of his organization claim the use of the Chief Wahoo logo and Indians nickname makes Jacobs Field a hostile environment for Native Americans. That environment, Bellecourt says, violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guarantees people full and equal enjoyment of public places without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.

The lawsuits and opening-day protest came on the heels of the United States Patent and Trade Office's decision to cancel trademark protection for the Washington Redskins name and logo. The decision, which is being appealed, does not prevent the team from using the name or logo. But it would allow anyone to put the Redskins name and logo on merchandise, jeopardizing millions of dollars of revenue for the National Football League.

As Ernie Banks might say: It's a perfect day for baseball, let's sue too.
The protesters might not have won any hearts or minds Monday, but they fought the good fight. They made speeches, held signs, and chanted slogans. They took insults and hurled a few of their own. They marched around Jacobs Field, burned another carving of Chief Wahoo, and spoke eloquently about how the grinning caricature demeans Native Americans, including the estimated 2,000 who live in Greater Cleveland.

"Things like Chief Wahoo create a lens that the mainstream public sees us through," said Michael Haney, a Native American activist from Minneapolis whose long braids and brightly colored clothing turned heads as he moved through the swarm of Tribe fans. "They see us as somebody who still scalps people, who isn't quite human. It's the dehumanization at Jacobs Field we object to."

"Wahoo is such a symbol--you can't get away from him," said Juan Reyna, a part-Apache who lives on the near West Side and is chairman of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance. "It's part of the portfolio of racist behavior by the fans. They still paint their faces, run like crazy with chicken feathers in their hair. We're just tired of that."

Reaction from Tribe faithful ran the gamut of emotions. While some were outright hostile, most chose to ignore the protesters. A few fans in Indians regalia at Gateway Sports Club were amused when the protesters marched by and a serious-looking white woman screamed at them, "This is hurtful; you should be ashamed! Think of your children!"

"The Indians logo has been here longer than the protesters," chided Jeff Combs, a fan from Newton Falls. "Where were they fifty or sixty years ago?"

His pal, Ed Masters from Hudson, agreed. "I believe there's a place and time for everything, but opening day at the Tribe?" he said, beer in hand, as perky bleached-blond twins hawked Miller Lite to the mob. "I don't run out to the reservation and protest there."

Others were more charitable. "If they believe in it that firmly, go ahead," said Columbus resident Owen Hickey, as he tried unsuccessfully to buy two tickets. "I can understand their point."

Mike Margevicius and his ten-year-old son, Steven, had their entire faces painted in a big Wahoo logo, with the Chief's toothy smile stretching from the bottom of their noses to the end of their chins. "Do I look like an Indian?" Margevicius asked, then answered his own question. "I look like a clown. This is no disrespect to Native Americans. We're here to root on a baseball team, not mock anybody."

Dressed in khakis, wearing glasses, and carrying his morning cup of coffee, Indians relief pitcher Paul Assenmacher walked past the motley collection of protesters unnoticed. Asked his thoughts about their objections, he smirked coyly, shook his head, and kept moving.

As game time approached, both protesters and fans became more aggressive. "Look, there's the guy from Deliverance," taunted Pearce as a chubby fan walked by. "Maybe they should rename them the Cleveland Rednecks or the Cleveland Unemployed Ironworkers."

Perhaps no one better symbolized the surreal intersection of sports, commerce, and politics on opening day than Sal Barrelli, a 69-year-old Parma Heights resident decked out in an Indians jacket and Chief Wahoo cap. Barrelli sold beer at Cleveland Municipal Stadium when he was in his twenties, a stint that included the incredible 1954 season, when the Indians won the American League pennant but were swept in a World Series best remembered for Willie Mays's incredible over-the-shoulder catch.

Barrelli couldn't relate to the protesters. "I don't see what's so demeaning," he said. But he had his own political agenda.

"I wouldn't go into that place," Barrelli said with a contemptuous glance at Jacobs Field. "They keep raising the prices. I just come down here for the tailgate."

Mike Tobin may be reached at mtobin@clevescene.com.

More by Mike Tobin


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