My first time seeing Cleveland’s baseball team play was in the early eighties. This was at the old stadium, the “mistake by the lake.” (We weren’t good, these were the teams that inspired the movie Major League, but Tony Bernazard, Mell Hall, Pat Tabler, Brett Butler remain my favorite players from Cleveland’s baseball teams.) Just before we left for the game, my dad drew a Chief Wahoo and “Go Tribe!” on a sign for me to hold. My only thought was that when I got big I would be able to draw like my dad, which turned out not to be true, but I waved that sign at the game with nothing but love for my team on my mind.
In high school I read an article by Terry Pluto. Probably every region has a Terry Pluto, a gifted writer who covers sports but manages to make clear that sports can mean something beyond the games. He wrote that because he can’t wear Chief Wahoo’s image without thinking about how it might make Native Americans feel having their heritage represented by a cartoon image, it’s time to change it. What he meant, I think, is that our familiar representation of the team we love is so relatively insignificant to actual pain to a minority group and so easily replaceable with a different representation, that will do nothing to affect our love for our team or our memories of our love for that team, that keeping it anyway is offensive. That I still recall the day I read that article, almost thirty years ago, shows I was thinking about it, too, but I fell back on that common argument. I don’t mean offense when I wear Chief Wahoo, I have nothing but love for my team on my mind, so wearing Chief Wahoo is okay.
I played a lot of poker when I lived in Seattle, usually with my Chief Wahoo cap bill pulled down tight to hide my reactions to the cards. I mostly played at casinos around town but I once drove out to a reservation to play. I played a tournament and lasted hours before busting out near the money. I played in a regular game, after that. I’d been there for a while, rotating dealers were all, as I recall, Native Americans. Then a guy about my age sat down to deal. That was the first it occurred to me that I was wearing my Chief Wahoo hat. He was a friendly guy, showed no ill feeling that I could have possibly interpreted as him being upset to be across from a player wearing a cartoon image of his heritage, but I saw myself as a white guy brazenly showing up at an Indian reservation with a hat for a baseball team on his head knowing some Native Americans found it offensive, that it would cause some Native Americans real pain. I took it off and held it balled up in my lap the rest of the night. I told the story to people later, describing my embarrassment, but I wasn’t embarrassed; I was ashamed.
On another friend’s thread discussing this issue, a longtime fan of Cleveland’s baseball team said he stopped wearing his Chief Wahoo hat when someone posed the question to him, Would you wear it onto a reservation? Not only had I, and felt that shame, but I kept wearing mine after that. I wouldn’t have worn it again, there, but I wore it everywhere else. On a train ride home, at a stop off in Chicago, the windy city, my Chief Wahoo hat blew off my head into a river. My response reminded me of a favorite psychology study, the value gap between owning something and deciding to buy something. The study goes like this: they determine what people would pay for a ticket to an event, where the exact cut off in price is between when they would buy that ticket and when they would decide to pass on attending that event. Then they determine at what price people would sell a ticket they already have to an event, the exact cut off where they would keep the ticket and go to the event or sell it to a buyer. Common sense would tell you these would be the same, but that’s not what they found. There’s an ownership bias. Owning the ticket gives it more value in people’s minds. There’s a large gap between the two. People who wouldn’t pay $80 for a ticket to see a band they like, if they already possess the ticket wouldn’t sell it for as much as $100 because of the gap created by ownership bias. Something like that was at play when I reacted to my hat blowing off my head by immediately deciding I would buy a Cavaliers hat instead and be finished walking around wearing a Chief Wahoo image.
Years later, I worked with a Native American friend, who was passionately against the use of a caricature of his people to represent a sports team. He argued it was racist. He would tell me about discussions he had with people adamant about continuing to wear Chief Wahoo and his argument was clearly better. His was that it was hurtful, theirs was “yeah, but we like it.” We had a long, civil back and forth on this on facebook a few years ago. At the time, we had two Native Americans we worked with and the other one said he didn’t have any problem with the Chief Wahoo image, which people used as a defense of wearing it, but that argument made no sense to me. As a Native American I find the Chief Wahoo image offensive, the one friend said, and people told him, but I know another Native American who doesn’t. So? That doesn’t make the first person’s pain any different.
I spent a morning reading scientific studies that have been done backwards and forwards on this issue. They measure sensitivity to minority groups through a series of questions. They prime two groups, randomly selected, one with an image of a caricature of Native Americans and one with a neutral image and give both groups the survey. The people primed with the image of the caricature, like a Chief Wahoo, measure as having less sensitivity, not just to Native Americans but to all minority groups. These results were obviously questioned by people who like their Chief Wahoo, so they ran it again and again and again. Results were verified by other scientists. When I say “backwards and forwards” I’m not just using an expression, they even isolated people by the familiar counter arguments for support of Chief Wahoo, they did the experiment with people who swore wearing Chief Wahoo was a way of honoring Native Americans. Those people, too, measured as less sensitive after the primer.
They also tested Native Americans self-esteem levels with another series of questions. Native Americans primed with the image showed lower levels of self-esteem than Native Americans primed with a neutral image. Even Native Americans who claim not to be offended were measured and found to have lower levels of self-esteem. When you couple that with the statistic that the suicide rates of Native Americans are three times higher than the national average, you immediately understand why they’re out there every opening day, at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario with “Change the Name, Change the Logo” signs.
Saying goodbye to Chief Wahoo is hard because we have attached memories we think will be tarnished, generational memories, memories of time spent with loved ones no longer with us. It was hard for me, but it’s not okay not to do something because it’s hard. I should have been done with Chief Wahoo when Terry Pluto’s article spoke to me. I should have put it away for good when I felt ashamed in front of that dealer. How long it took me is not okay. My good memories are trite compared to the fair protests by Native Americans against this representation of their heritage, who have scientific study clearly on their side. People whose very lives are threatened by an image that damages their self-esteem leading to higher suicide rates. Just this recent opening day, fans of Cleveland’s baseball team wearing Chief Wahoo taunted Native American protestors. How are we not ashamed of this? How was I not for so long?
The answer is in that ticket, that ownership bias.
It’s a convenient notion that Chief Wahoo isn’t a big deal to anyone, but it’s not a thoughtful take, it’s purely emotional. Once you remove the issue from that sphere of emotional thinking, where Chief Wahoo is harmless because it felt harmless at some point in the past, and look at it analytically, it’s either that the hurt and damage caused by the image is purely an invention to spoil other people’s fun or real pain and damage is caused by the image but that damage caused to other people is a price people who enjoy wearing it are willing to pay to continue to display the image. I know way too many kind and thoughtful people who still wear the Chief Wahoo image to believe very many continue to wear it after reaching the second answer. For the vast majority of fans of Cleveland’s baseball team, it’s the first. But there’s a paradox there, because no one truly believes Native Americans are showing up at every home opener motivated to spoil the fun of fans with no reason behind their organized protest.
Clinging to the image of Chief Wahoo is comparatively trite when considering scientific evidence that damage is caused by its display, but it’s not trite when in the emotional state where that damage is being wished away. We longtime fans of Cleveland’s baseball team have memories of rooting for our team, and those memories feel packed into the Chief Wahoo image. What I really want people to know, from someone who feels shame over sticking with that logo for far too long, who tries to make amends for that error by speaking out against the image now, is that those memories aren’t packed into that image. They aren’t packed into the name either. Your memories of sitting at a game with your mom and dad, watching a game on a Sunday with your grandpa and grandma, chatting about the team with friends, none of those memories are tarnished after embracing the change. None of your love for those people in your lives is tarnished either. Times change. Your passed loved ones would just as likely be the ones embracing that change as not, so you’re celebrating their memory by embracing the change. It’s time to Change the Name, Change the Logo.
Please take some time to listen to what Native Americans who feel damaged by the name and mascot of Cleveland’s baseball team have to say. These links will be a good place to start:
This link summarizes the findings of the studies I mentioned with the recommendation from the American Psychological Association made in 2005 that Native American mascots be abandoned:
This link is to a hard-to-watch video of fans at the 2018 opener for Cleveland’s baseball team taunting Native American protestors:
Links below from wordpress.