On Monday, the day of the Cleveland Indians’ opening game for the new season, Cleveland’s city council voted unanimously to pass a city ordinance that will lead to the removal of banners displaying the team’s controversial mascot, Chief Wahoo, from the city’s public utility poles in the downtown central business area.
Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed told ICTMN, via phone, that permits were not required before and this ordinance will force the Major League Baseball team to submit a design to a review committee. If the banner is found to be offensive or inappropriate, the committee will require changes before considering a permit.
The team already has banners decorating the downtown flats region of the city that feature with the Chief Wahoo logo clearly visible on a player’s sleeve. Despite announcements that the franchise is “demoting” the big-nosed caricature in favor of the red block letter ‘C’, Wahoo is still on the left sleeve of the uniforms and on home game hats.
Tara Houska. Courtesy Jason Daniels.
“You can’t scale back racism. It is what it is,” Reed told ICTMN. “If you look up there at those banners downtown you can see Chief Wahoo and we want it gone. Whether big or small, we want it gone.”
“I feel really great about it. Considering the fact they’ve been getting away with it all these years,” Philip Yenyo, co-chair of the American Indian Committee of 500 Years which organizes the annual protest at Progressive Field. “They want us to pay for permits to demonstrate. The sports team gets what they want. Everyone is so afraid the team is going to leave, like the [old NFL] Browns did.”
Team owner Paul Dolan told theCleveland Plain Dealer last week, “we do have empathy for those who take issue with it. We have minimized the use of it and we'll continue to do what we think is appropriate."
“They just need to get rid of it completely,” Yenyo told ICTMN. “If you are sensitive to it, as Paul Dolan claims he is, then get rid of it. The sooner Wahoo and the name changes the better. Then, maybe we’ll feel comfortable enough to buy tickets and watch a ball game. Right now, to me it’s a hostile environment.”
“It’s like having a confederate flag,” Reed says, “There is no appropriate level of it.“
The city councilman believes it comes down to money.
“As long as they are making money from the owner’s standpoint they aren’t going to change. So, we as public officials, we have to let them know that for a team that represents the city of Cleveland the mascot can’t be derogatory and offensive,” Reed said.
Reed believes that if the team were to change their mascot it would open the market for their gear to a greater buying public nationwide and increase sales.
Dolan may be running out of time to do the right thing of his own free will. Last month, a trademark lawsuit was filed and a hearing date set to cancel the Wahoo mascot.
A 2013 study done by Emory University researchers Dr. Manish Tripathi and Michael Lewis found race-based mascots (Native mascots) produced a dramatic decline in their teams’ brand equity. In the NFL, it costs the Washington team an estimated $1.6 million per year. For MLB teams, Cleveland and Atlanta (Braves), the cost is even higher at $2.6 million per year.
However, despite all the upsides that changing the mascot may bring, the response on social media to the new ordinance has not been positive, and Reed has been singled out by angry “Tribe” fans for “oppressing” Chief Wahoo with “political correctness.”
“There's just a lot of bad things still going on in that city,” Kayla DeVault (Shawnee) told ICTMN. As a graduate student she organized Native student protests of the mascot at Case Western University. She now works on the Navajo Nation. “For people to still be holding on to this and to defend themselves with even more racism and ignorance? It just makes me grateful to have left Cleveland for the Reservation. Yeah, they say we have ‘worse problems’ because they don't even know what those problems are. But if they're that much worse, why do I enjoy my life here better than in that small-minded atmosphere?”
Yenyo recalled what it was like for him to grow up in Cleveland as a member of a tiny minority group and to be bullied just for being Native American:
“It doesn’t make it easy to live and make friends. Even walking down to the corner store you can get jumped or someone is going to harass you. In the city, wherever you go—you can’t escape it—anywhere in the state. I remember going horseback riding, on a trail and I’m here with nature, I’m away from the city and there it is. A guy in front of you is wearing a hat. You can’t escape the smiling face of racism.”
Some progress has been made though, as Pedro Rodriguez, the fan who appeared two years ago in red face and a faux headdress who confronted long-time protester Rob Roche (Chiricahua Apache) in a photo that went viral, greeted Roche again, this time sans the face paint and headdress.
Jacqueline Keeler is the author of My life as a Cleveland Indian: The enduring disgrace of racist sports mascots.