Louis Sockalexis, in an undated photo taken during his professional baseball career between 1897 and 1907. Credit: Contributed photo

The news on Friday that the Cleveland Indians would change its name to the Cleveland Guardians was met with a mix of approval and chagrin from members of the Penobscot Nation and fans of Louis Sockalexis, the 1890s Penobscot ball player who was the first known Native American to play major league baseball, and who inspired the team’s soon-to-be former name.

The Guardians refer to the Guardians of Traffic in Cleveland, two iconic statues at each end of the Hope Memorial Bridge near Progressive Field, where the team plays.

The name change comes amid increasing pressure to change the racially charged names of sports teams that reference Native Americans in professional, college and high school sports. The Washington football team dropped its “Redskins” name last year, and in 2019, ​​Skowhegan High School became the last Maine school to get rid of its Native mascot, retiring the Indians name in favor of the River Hawks in October 2020.

Maulian Dana, the Penobscot Nation tribal ambassador who has long campaigned to remove Indigenous mascots and team names in Maine and nationwide, said the name change — as well as the full removal of the team’s mascot, Chief Wahoo — was great news.

“The Penobscot Nation remains so proud of the legacy of Louis Sockalexis, and I am hopeful that we can have a real discussion and education around his contributions to baseball, without this harmful mascot hanging over it like a dark cloud,” Dana said. “I am so happy for all the Indigenous people in Cleveland and all around the country that won’t have Chief Wahoo validated by institutional racism anymore.”

In 2018, the Indians stopped wearing the Chief Wahoo logo on their jerseys and caps. However, the team continues to sell merchandise bearing the smiling, red-faced caricature that was protested for decades by Native American and anti-racism groups. It’s not known when the team will stop selling that merchandise, though according to MLB.com, the change to the Guardians will start with the 2022 baseball season.

Sockalexis, a Penobscot man, played for what were then the Cleveland Spiders for three seasons in 1897, 1898 and 1899. He not only was the first known Native American to play professional baseball, but by all accounts, he was a phenom. Nevertheless, Sockalexis was met with shouted racial slurs, demeaning “war whoops,” and fans doing “war dances” every time he took the field. Fans would ask him if he was drinking firewater, something that became ever more cruel over the course of his career, during which his alcoholism worsened.

The team changed its name to the Cleveland Indians in 1915, a name that the team and its fans claim was chosen to honor Sockalexis and Native people in general, but in reality had a far more complicated, racist origin.

Indian Island resident Chris Sockalexis, whose grandfather, Byron Sockalexis, was a second cousin once removed of Louis Sockalexis, is one of the few remaining distant relatives of Louis. He and his family didn’t mind the name the Indians, though he too found the Chief Wahoo mascot offensive.

“I’m glad Chief Wahoo is gone, but we as a family have kind of mixed feelings about it all. We wanted them to go back to the Spiders, which is the name they had when Louis was playing,” Sockalexis said. “Having that name would have kept that connection, and we are losing that. But I think, even with this whole rebranding, Louis is still there. He’s still honored in the stadium.”

Ed Rice, a baseball historian who wrote a book about Sockalexis, “Baseball’s First Indian: The Story of Penobscot Legend Louis Sockalexis,” met the news with some trepidation.

“It becomes even more important now to make sure Louis’ legacy is remembered. I am afraid now that the Cleveland team will forget the history and let it fade into the background. I think it’s incredibly important now that Maine and Holy Cross do more to recognize that we had an extraordinary ball player who never got the respect he deserved,” Rice said, referring to College of the Holy Cross, the Massachusetts college that Sockalexis attended.

The name change announcement video the team released on Friday via Twitter, featuring narration from Tom Hanks, did not mention Sockalexis, or show his picture.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.