Thursday, October 20, 2016

Considering Chief Wahoo

Though raised in Connecticut and New York, I've lived in Cleveland for the last sixteen years. Relocating here with my wife after grad school and starting a family, all of our children are native Clevelanders and have known no other home. While there have been many times it seemed like the Seddon family would move on to other cities, regions, or climates, we've always chosen to stay. It's a great and affordable city to raise a family, and more than that: Clevelanders, while possessing a gruff exterior, are paradoxically some of the most welcoming people in the country on a deeper level. That isn't their initial impression, though. They can come off as naturally defensive, grim, and hard bitten. They also tend to be shocked at anyone who would relocate to their city, and will question your sanity with a characteristic dark humor. But anyone who stays around Cleveland long will soon enough realize that this city is unlike many others: those who come here might not be superficially welcomed with charm, but you will be accepted as Clevelanders almost immediately. There is no real bias shown against those who weren't born here: if you've decided to throw your lot in with Cleveland, Cleveland throws its lot in with you.

One of the things I noticed was the way the city unifies around its sports teams. When I first moved here, back in 2000, I hadn't been prepared for such unanimity of sports conviction in a single geographic location. Growing up in Southern Connecticut and in the Mid-Hudson River Valley, there are no mandatory sports teams. All sports fans are presented with options: In Connecticut, you can choose to be a Yankees, Red Sox, or Mets fan. In football you choose between the Jets, Giants, and Patriots. All the other sports have similar options, and generally people tend to root along the lines of family ties. If your grandfather grew up in the Bronx, for instance, you are likely a Yankees fan. And though they don't like to mention it, some people will even shift depending upon the varying levels of success of each team. I saw a lifelong Yankees fan buy a Mets hat in 1986. I'm sure he dug out his Yankees gear again in the '90s.

Rolling into Cleveland, in the summer of 2000, I was unprepared for the unanimous support of the Tribe. Wherever I turned, the grinning face of Chief Wahoo stared excitedly back: on cars, t-shirts, caps, lawns, windows, billboards, storefronts (whether they were bars or not)--I even saw clergy wearing Indians gear; the Chief's knowing look covering all with benevolent enthusiasm. At first, I didn't know what to think. I hadn't considered the question much, but had heard the arguments that the Chief was a racist caricature, and offensive to many Native Americans. That seemed pretty cut and dry to me, and I probably uncritically accept it. Anyhow, many Native Americans are offended by the Chief, so that much is pretty easy to acknowledge. The rest of it was tougher for me sort out, and remains that way.

Homage or Racist Logo? The Original Chief Wahoo from Municipal Stadium,
now on display at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland [photo: Eric Seddon]

Before going further, let me clearly say that I neither reject nor disparage the feelings of those who consider the Chief offensive. In many ways, American cultural history is a story of ignorance, appropriation, re-purposing of cultural goods, and violence, followed by amnesia. When considering the contributions of Native Americans, this is especially true, and tragically profound. There is still a tremendous need for a more accurate cultural history of America to be written, showing the foundational importance of indigenous culture. Our music, poetry, dance, and even aspects of our national psychology are in many ways dependent upon their Native American roots. Beyond that, our Federal system of government, with its unique matrix of cross checks and balances, owes a profound debt to the Iroquois Confederacy. Furthermore, I don't believe all of our study should be of a purely historical nature. Current, living Native American culture has a lot to teach us still about the values of eschewing materialism and seeing ourselves as a more responsible and interconnected part of the natural environment. If protests against Chief Wahoo raise our awareness of people so important yet so ignored, then it is good they happen. 

Having said this, I think it's important to recognize that the Chief is part of a long tradition in white American history, not necessarily as racist as it might seem. In many ways symbols like the Chief were intended (or at least functioned as) a fight against our selective amnesia. Not all Americans of European descent have favored the horrible policies that sought to genocidally destroy those who were here before us. Each generation has had its protesters, among the some of our greatest writers, poets, and musicians. The new republic's first great man of letters, Washington Irving, wrote scathingly against the American policy of 'extermination' (as he clearly referred to it) in his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (the first international hit by an American artist). He was followed almost immediately by James Fenimore Cooper, whose portrayals of the nobility of the Delaware and Mohican Indians, while anthropologically and historically romanticized and conflated, became an impassioned and lasting cry in favor of rescuing this people from injustice, while giving them credit, in many ways, for who we are as a nation. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, likewise concerned that the valuable contribution of Native American myth was being lost due to the expansion of the United States, wrote perhaps his most enduring epic with Hiawatha. There have always been racists in America who sought to destroy this sort of art, and unfortunately they tend to have their voices too. Mark Twain was one of them, whose bigotry against Native Americans extended to hating and disparaging the art that celebrated them. His mockery of Fenimore Cooper and Longfellow was almost certainly related, and for anyone who reads them these days, clearly wrong headed. 

By the 20th century, perhaps because of guilty consciences combined with the cynicism of Twain (which always threatens to carry the day in our country), portrayals of Native Americans drifted from the heroic to the servile, to the comedic, to the caricature. Perhaps the most famous native American of the mid-20th century was Jay Silverheels, known for the role of Tonto in the Lone Ranger. It was a favorite of mine as a boy. I was drawn to this image of the Native American as loyal, brave, and humble. It was only as an adult that I realized, too, that Tonto was only allowed to be a servant, far less important than the figures of Tamenund, Uncas, or Hiawatha of the 19th century. Tonto was at least a protest against the shallow stock villian Indian of the Hollywood cowboy movie, but he wasn't what he could have been. 

I Love Lucy even took a whack at an Indian themed show, though in typical fashion, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz produced deeper art than most other comedy of the time. In it, New York Mohawks are shown to be regular New Yorkers, Lucy considered ridiculous for reading sensationalized fiction, and the musical climax, while sentimental and decidedly middle brow, was at least somewhat heartfelt and pretty. In between, Lucy stumbles clumsily through quotations of Hiawatha, the Mertzes and Ricky sing stereotypicallly about peace pipes and tomahawks, and a the very end, the recurring theme of Lucy breaking out of traditional housewife roles depicts the baby as a papoose--a double nod, perhaps, to the influence of Iroquois women on the women's suffrage movement in Seneca Falls, NY, and perhaps a looking to the future of mothers in the work force. All throughout, we sense it is a good hearted homage. It helps to remember that it was produced at the height of McCarthyism, and that Lucy had been investigated for "un-American activities." It didn't behoove her to criticize American status quo too much in those days, though she did in her own ways.   

One of the era's worst caricatures of Native Americans came from Disney's studio in 1953's Peter Pan. The original J.M. Barrie children's novel can (and probably ought to be) taken as a fantasia on a Victorian British boy's imaginative mind, and therefore probably shouldn't be held to the same standard as adult American art. The same can't be said for Disney. They should have known better. "What Makes the Red Man Red" is a disturbingly bigoted number, made worse by the use of music that couldn't have even developed without Native American foundations. It's just plain insulting. 

Enter Chief Wahoo, the current form of whom dates from 1951. We're past the advent of Tonto here, and almost simultaneous with Lucy and Peter Pan. Is he racist like the Disney version? Or an homage (if not fully adequate) like Tonto, or Lucy's "The Indian Show"?  

It would be easy, even facile, to say that because he is closer to the Disney cartoon than Jay Silverheels, he must be racist in intent. The fact is, caricatures were and are common in sports advertising, with no disparaging meant. The cartoon Baltimore Oriole isn't intended to disparage birds, and people don't name their sports teams after those they hate or look down on. To name your team after a people or group is a sign of admiration. Thus, for all the cries that a black or Jewish version of Chief Wahoo wouldn't be tolerated, there lies the sad reality that no, those noble groups of people have never been so honored by a major league franchise. That's not a strike against the Cleveland Indians name, but an unmentioned gap in the rest of our culture. A more direct parallel comes in the form of the Boston Celtics logo: an Irishman with a shalalie (that's what that "walking stick" is). This isn't offensive to any of my Boston Irish relatives, though it plays on stereotypes. The Cleveland Cavaliers likewise offer a floppy-hatted swordsman, bearing no real resemblance to the Royalist forces of the English Civil War, but not offending my English sensibilities either. The mascot and logo were chosen not for cultural or historical accuracy, but for perceived virtues of honor and loyalty. Likewise, the Chief was chosen to suggest bravery, perhaps cunning, and persistence. 

Is the logo, ultimately, among other things, an expression of ignorance? Clearly, yes. Amnesia? Maybe, though I would argue figures like the Chief, drama like "The Indian Show", and characters like Tonto kept memory alive, in a good way, when the nation was really trying to bury the past. That doesn't mean that we have to remain stuck in the 1950s regarding our imagery--we need to progress. But in the process of progressing, it behooves us to recognize the good that was attempted, though imperfectly, before our day and age. 

I began this post reflecting of the character of Clevelanders. Though it's never mentioned, I believe the inhabitants of this city feel a symbolic solidarity with Native Americans, and that's one of the reasons the name of the baseball team has endured. As Lebron James said recently, before an Indians playoff game "It's always Cleveland against the World!" Clevelanders have long endured the country's unfair jokes and scorn, and are acutely sensitive to condescension. They see themselves as downtrodden, yet resilient; proud of who and what they are; unyielding. To many Indians fans, attacking Chief Wahoo makes them dig in more: he becomes a symbol of Cleveland defiance. I'm not one who agrees with this perspective,  but it is an emotional reality. Recently, in the ALCS, a lawsuit was brought against the Cleveland Indians in Canadian court in an attempt to block them from wearing the Chief or the name "Indians" in Toronto. The case was dismissed, and the emotional result was probably not what was intended. It seems the Indians have doubled down on the Chief this post season. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole controversy isn't being used as locker room motivation. This is speculation, but such speculation is likely to continue so long as the logo remains. 

Though I have Indians gear with the Chief's smiling visage, and though I personally feel he was never intended to disparage the people who inspired his creation, I admit that it is perhaps finally time for the Chief to be fully retired. I, for one, would favor a collaborative effort (similar to the agreement between Florida State University and Seminole Nation) to come up with a noble logo that celebrates and respects Native American culture. Perhaps something can be worked out with the Seneca Nation, whose people once ruled the lands and waters of the Cuyahoga. That way we could move forward, respecting and healing the inheritance we have received.   


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