'I Never Felt Honored': A Response to the Indians from Someone Who Grew up Native in Cleveland

click to enlarge 'I Never Felt Honored': A Response to the Indians from Someone Who Grew up Native in Cleveland
Sam Allard / Scene
As the Cleveland baseball team considers changing its name and identity, I find myself reflecting on my experiences growing up and living in Cleveland as a Native American. No two Native American experiences in Cleveland are the same. With more than 500 tribes in the United States, we are not a monolithic people. I am half Salvadoran and half Native American, Anishinaabe of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. My grandma and my dad are the products of Michigan Indian boarding schools — Mt. Pleasant Indian School and Holy Childhood, respectively. I am a born-and-raised proud Clevelander who grew up and went to school in the Slavic Village neighborhood. This is the first time I've openly discussed my experiences as a Native person in Cleveland.

Years ago, when the American Psychological Association released its statement denouncing American Indian mascots for a variety of reasons but especially because of how they affect Native youth, I finally found official validation for my experiences. My memories around the team are not all terrible, but there are certainly more traumatic things that stand out to me, some more overtly racist than others. I'd like to think, believing in the inherent goodness of people, that if people knew what Native people have had to go through in Cleveland as a result of the team name, they'd see there is no honor in it. In fact, for me, it created complicated feelings about my identity that I am still resolving as an adult.

As a child, I went to a few games with my school and church. My dad took us to protest the team a few times, too. So on one hand, I had school and church tacitly giving their approval of the team and, on the other, my dad raising me to hate the name.

I remember one instance at school in particular. It was a dress down day if you wore baseball gear. I was excited as a child about the team, which was understandable in those years, since the lineup included Hall of Famer Jim Thome, as well as All-Stars Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle and my girlhood crush, Omar Vizquel. And as is the case for many fellow proud Clevelanders, I felt a win for the team was a win for all of us in the city. The reason I remember this particular day is because a group of students started whooping in a stereotypical rapid hand-to-mouth motion I had seen before. Only this time, they were circling me and laughing.

Another time, I was shoved by a group of boys into a cupboard as I cried because they thought it would be funny to put an Indian in the cupboard. (You know? Like the book.) On yet another occasion, a girl I grew up with told me she didn't like Indians. Before I could stop myself, because I was always longing to make friends and belong, I denied my heritage. I said something to the effect of, “I’m not that Indian.” I regret and am so angry at myself to this day for saying such a thing.

When my dad was asked to speak about woodlands tribes to my eighth grade class, I begged him not to because I was terrified some Chief Wahoo-related teasing would ensue. Luckily, it didn't, but I think it hurt my dad's feelings a bit. The one time I recall standing up for myself was when someone said my dad looked like Chief Wahoo and, though I couldn't have been older than a fourth grader, I told them he couldn't look like Chief Wahoo because it's a cartoon and my dad is not. These are just a few experiences that stand out to me amongst a life of them.

What does all of this have to do with the team name and why getting rid of it is long overdue? The people of this region essentially gave their seal of approval by not challenging the name and logo on a wider scale. White people and other people of color, including some family members, wore and defended the mascot in my presence. I do not resent them for it because they do not know what the team name and Chief Wahoo have meant to me. Still, that acceptance made it okay for those kids to treat me the way they did, whether it directly had to do with the team name and mascot or if it was discrimination enabled by complicity. In other words, based on personal experience, I endured what I did because Chief Wahoo and the team name gave people a pass to look at me through the same lens of dehumanization with which they looked at a racist caricature.

Fast forward to high school. I wanted to get far away from Cleveland and be among fellow Natives. I went to college in Nebraska where I found my circle of lifelong friends, women and men of color from various tribes and diverse backgrounds. That might seem to people from Cleveland like an unlikely place to go looking for oneself but I loved my time at Creighton University. I was able to advocate for Native issues and work and volunteer in Native communities. A year after graduating, I volunteered for two years via AmeriCorps on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota with Native youth, which has been one of my passions since. I also went on to serve on the board of the Native American Journalists Association and wrote for indigenous media such as RezNet and Vision Marker Media, previously known as Native American Public Telecommunications. I've lived in nine states for internships, school and work.

Still, my heart was in Cleveland. I met my husband, a non-Native person and we recently married in the neighborhood I grew up in. God willing, we will have kids someday, and they will be Native. I want them to be proud of their heritage and the city from which they come. I want their love of this city to not be clouded by the cognitive dissonance of loving one’s hometown and hating that its baseball team name is so racist. I never want them to feel like I did — like they have to reduce their indigenous-ness to get by in this town. I am tired of conversations, some evolving into heated debates, with friends and strangers about the team name and Chief Wahoo.

I do not, nor have I ever, felt honored by the team name. The strides toward phasing out Chief Wahoo were steps in the right direction. But there is still more to do. Please advocate in your own group of friends and relatives for the name change. I especially direct this toward my friends of color: if blackface offends you, as it should, then how can you excuse red face? You can't.

It’s time to change the name.

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