My wife and I celebrated our lucky 13th anniversary Friday by cheering the Tribe on to a 5-1 victory over the A’s at Progressive Field. We cheered at all the right times, booed when it was necessary, and jumped to our feet when the Indians rallied for four runs in the sixth inning.
As a workaholic, I had a secondary mission in the stands: I was scanning the crowd and silently noting how Cleveland fans approach the sensitive topic of Chief Wahoo.
A federal judge this past week dumped all over the Washington Redskins NFL franchise, cancelling the team’s trademark registration. In an appeal to Blackhorse v. Pro-Football Inc., the judge found the term “redskins” to consist “of matter that ‘may disparage’ a substantial composite of Native Americans.”
Right after the ruling, we asked our Facebook followers how they felt about it. Most respondents said using Redskins, Indians, and similar names (Chiefs, Braves, or Blackhawks, for instance) is a harmless tribute to the past.
I wish it were that simple. Unfortunately, most issues truly worth thinking about don’t have easy, binary answers — so here’s my attempt to try to suss out the situation.
For the most part, I agree with readers like Brian Rutkowski: “Why would it be offensive?” he replied on Facebook when asked whether American Indian names should be used by sports teams. “It should be considered an honor to be represented as such. The teams aren’t making fun of any nationality or using it in a disrespectful way so no it shouldn’t be considered offensive.”
The name Indians should be no more offensive than the Cowboys or any other based on people and groups of people — Vikings, Buccaneers, Pirates, Texans, Oilers, Yankees, Brewers, Mariners, Rangers, Islanders. These names aren’t in and of themselves demeaning.
Nor are team names used with explicit tribal approval. Growing up in New York, there were any number of teams that paid tribute to the Mohawk. The Seminoles actively endorse use of their name by Florida State. The Sioux is popular among high schools in the northern plains states.
There are some names that are plainly unacceptable when used by teams.
Redmen, for instance, has been abandoned by many teams in the past couple of decades because it comments on a supposed skin color, not on the content of anyone’s character, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might have put it. Redskins clearly has the same problem. “Savages” was extremely popular to the west but has fallen into disuse because it casts native peoples in a negative light.
Which brings us to Chief Wahoo — a red-skinned caricature of an American Indian in all its cartoonish, stereotyped glory.
There were few Wahoos to be found Friday as Michael Brantley singled a hopper to right field to drive in the winning runs. The more I searched the sea of red, white, and blue jerseys and hats, the more I was convinced that the Indians-loving public is less in love with the Chief than ever.
There were plenty of bold, black C’s on fields of red. There were feather-styled I’s everywhere. There were even some “Wild Thing” jerseys. But Chief Wahoo wasn’t often in evidence in Section 553 behind home plate.
And that’s OK. It’s easy to love the Tribe tastefully. It’s not an “example of a country gone soft,” as one Facebook commenter put it, to be respectful.