Our campaign to end the use of Native American nicknames and mascots by Maine’s public schools has reached the last community, Skowhegan, still clinging to the tenets protected by acceptable institutional racism. But more formidable examples of mascot racism remain.
One is the Cleveland Indians baseball team and its controversial, racist caricature, Chief Wahoo.
In August 2014, I visited Cleveland and spoke in honor of Louis Sockalexis at a suburban branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Sockalexis was the first-known Native American baseball player who inspired the team nickname and who is most likely the first man to successfully break professional baseball’s color barrier.
In the coming days, I will return to Cleveland to join a demonstration at the Cleveland Indians’ first home game and to speak at Cleveland’s Baseball Heritage Museum, on the grounds of League Park, the professional Cleveland team’s original field and the field Sockalexis played upon from 1897-1899.
It’s sad to think that during that August 2014 trip, I might have been the first person to go to Cleveland to speak in tribute to Sockalexis.
As the author of his biography, I was also fortunate enough to have a meeting — at their request — with two Cleveland Indians executives, Curtis Danburg, senior director of communications, and Robert DiBiasio, vice president of public affairs, and a college intern doing a summer stint with the team.
Both team officials, understanding my non-negotiable opposition to the team’s continued use of an inappropriate nickname and racist logo, hoped we could find some common ground in properly showing Sockalexis respect. I have already helped — eliminating errors from the Sockalexis biography in the team’s media guide, correcting inappropriate labeling on a painting at the park and providing a far more suitable portrait of him for display at Progressive Field.
I was especially incensed when DiBiasio stated what appears to be the new team rationalization for continuing its use of Chief Wahoo: Major League Baseball, he said, had recently approved the team’s uniform design. And, according to MLB rules, teams must not make changes for three more years.
What complete cowardice from the Dolan family ownership. Their representatives essentially said, “Well, we can’t put an end to the controversy now because of MLB rules.”
But not so fast.
We can’t be talking about the same MLB that twice, for Memorial Day in 2009 and the Fourth of July in 2013, designed special “Stars and Stripes” promotional caps and, of its own volition, dropped Chief Wahoo and used a block “C” cap for Cleveland. Both times, Cleveland’s was the only team logo MLB saw fit to change on its own.
Suggesting MLB won’t accept a request from Cleveland to change its very upsetting logo is putting the responsibility, unfairly, on baseball’s parent organization, which I am betting would be delighted to grant the Cleveland Indians an exemption to finally do the right thing.
Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said it’s the team’s decision to continue its use of Chief Wahoo. Surely neither he nor his successor is interested in seeing the team state that it’s all MLB’s doing that the Chief Wahoo logo must cause headaches for another three years.
It’s time to join Cleveland activists in standing up to this tyranny. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published an editorial on Feb. 28, 2014, calling for Chief Wahoo’s end; a local popular magazine, Cleveland Scene, has long advocated its end. Cleveland City Councilor Zack Reed wants to stay on the front lines until the offensive logo is terminated. And American Indian Education Center Director Robert Roche is planning to file a $9 billion federal lawsuit against the team for the huge sums of money it has made off 100 years of using an inappropriate nickname and racist logo.
Based on the sea of Chief Wahoo sweatshirts, t-shirts, bobblehead dolls and mountains of other logo-laden knickknacks that run from one end of the team store to the other, I’m guessing $9 billion probably falls short of what Cleveland owners have made on this one vile symbol.
Finally, there is this: The Cleveland team states its nickname and its logo acknowledge and pay tribute to Penobscot Indian Louis Sockalexis of Maine and the history of the team. Yet, the team has failed to reply to or even acknowledge the existence of a resolution written by the Penobscot Nation chief and approved by the tribe’s council in 2000 to end the use of Chief Wahoo.
The Cleveland ownership does not have Penobscot approval to use Chief Wahoo, and it is completely disingenuous for the team to hide behind an MLB uniform regulation when it is more than obvious that the MLB, too, wants to see Chief Wahoo terminated. The time is now.
Journalist and adjunct college instructor Ed Rice of Orono is the author of “Baseball’s First Indian, Louis Sockalexis: Penobscot Legend, Cleveland Indian.” He has a website at www.sockalexis.info.