Are we paying the price for embracing America's last acceptable racist symbol?

The Curse of Chief Wahoo 

Are we paying the price for embracing America's last acceptable racist symbol?

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Indeed, the man for whom the team is purportedly named played in only 96 games over three seasons, compiling just 367 at bats in his career — about half a season's worth for a typical ballplayer. But spotty performance wasn't the half of it.

"In all versions of the story, Sockalexis had to deal with horrendous racism, terrible taunts, whoops from the crowd, and so on," Posnanski wrote on his blog. Among those who cling to the feel-good story, "nobody ever mentions that Sockalexis may have ruined his career by jumping from the second-story window of a whorehouse. Or that he was an alcoholic."

In fact, according to NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman, "when alcoholism ended [Sockalexis'] brief major-league career, sportswriters reported that he had succumbed to an inherent 'Indian weakness.'"

Like Posnanski, Zimmerman calls the franchise's Sockalexis story "simply not true." He presents evidence that the franchise was renamed the Indians by sportswriters — not to honor Sockalexis, but to recall the sensational "fun" that he would inspire in crowds some 15 years earlier, when newspapermen would jokingly refer to the club as the "Cleveland Indians," even though it was formally named the Spiders.

Of course, it didn't hurt that the new name also happened to reinforce the image of Natives as anachronistic savages, the ballclub a fearsome force to be reckoned with. "In place of the Naps, we'll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts," wrote the Cleveland Leader in announcing the name change on January 17, 1915. In fact, none of the reports from the four daily Cleveland newspapers even mentions Sockalexis, but each is replete with negative stereotypes.

The Plain Dealer of the same day included a cartoon titled "Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They're Indians." The panel depicts, among other things, a frowning umpire scolding a Native American who says to him, "WUKWOG-O."

"When you talk to me, talk English, you wukoig," the ump replies. (The cartoon helpfully explains of "wukoig": "That last word is in Indian.")

There's also a section highlighting "New Rooting Lingo for the Fans," picturing a crowd of white men shouting noises like "WAHOO ZOEA-ERK!" and "SLKRO-WOW WAHOOOOOOO!"

When sociologist Ellen Staurowsky combed through the organization's promotional material from the time before the name change, she found no mention of Sockalexis until 1968, which was after Native Americans who had come to Cleveland under the federal relocation program began to protest the name and logo. "There is a vast difference between speculating the Indians were named after Sockalexis and making the claim the franchise now makes, that there was an intentional decision to honor him," Staurowsky told the Associated Press in 1999.

A close reading of the franchise's public statements on Wahoo seems to reveal its own awareness of the impossibility of denying the symbol's demeaning roots. DiBiasio never says outright that the franchise was named to "honor" Sockalexis, but rather just that the organization is "proud to acknowledge and foster [his] legacy." Even the bronze plaque of Sockalexis that hangs in the Indians Hall of Fame at Progressive Field carefully states that he "inspired the nickname used to this very day," glossing over the fact that this inspiration was the result of sportswriters' enjoyment of the sensation created by the vicious taunting he endured.

***

From the Stanford Indians (now Cardinal) in 1972 to the Miami University Redskins (now the Redhawks) in 1996 to the removal of the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek in 2007, activists have had remarkable success over the last 40 years in eradicating Native American symbolism from athletic departments nationwide. In 2010, Wisconsin legislators enacted a statewide ban on race-based nicknames, logos, and mascots, so that they may only be kept with the permission of the local Native tribe. Other states have joined Wisconsin in considering similar laws, and the list of high schools and colleges that have banned Native names and mascots numbers in the hundreds.

So why no traction with Wahoo, a symbol arguably much more offensive than any of the rest? Call it a unique inertia, created by a combination of Native Americans' status as a tiny, relatively invisible minority; the traditional "cowboys and Indians" view of Natives' status as an enemy of American civilization; the innocent, if ignorant, elements of Cleveland's attachment to Wahoo as a symbol of a beloved baseball team; and a relative lack of awareness of the symbol's racist origins. Of course, there's also the fact that professional teams, unlike colleges and high schools, are owned by private individuals, most of whom happen to be white.

David Currie, a 73-year-old Euclid resident who identifies himself as "a WASP through and through," joins the Wahoo protesters every year because he believes the symbol is an embarrassment to his hometown. You'd never see a team called the Cleveland Negros or the Cleveland Jews, accompanied by a caricature of the race, he says. "There's no difference between blackface and redface. One is just as wrong as the other. It's just that here there's nobody to beat you up for wearing the redface."

Wahoo, incidentally, is all but nonexistent in the Indians' spring-training home of Goodyear, Arizona, where the Native American population is significantly higher than it is on the modern-day shores of Lake Erie.

Indeed, Ohio is home to zero Native reservations, compared to 11 in neighboring Michigan. Nationwide, full-blooded Native Americans make up slightly less than 1 percent of the U.S. population — not exactly the groundswell of numbers needed to shake up a nation's way of thinking.

More by Peter Pattakos

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