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VIDEO: Protesters, Fans Clash at Cleveland Indians' Opening Day

Protesters and fans of the Cleveland Indians baseball team clash outside Progressive Field in Ohio at Opening Day.

Although it's been one hundred years since the inception of the Cleveland Indians’ name, it is a year like any other for Cleveland resident Marjorie Villafane of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

On April 10, the baseball club’s opening day at Progressive Field in Ohio, she was busy as usual behind the scenes, bringing signs for marchers to carry as they protested the racist name and logo, Chief Wahoo. She ferried protestors and supporters between meeting sites, helped cook vast amounts of venison chili and stood quietly on the edge of the boisterous group of protesters who chided passing fans for supporting a name and logo so obviously offensive to Native peoples.

Villafane and the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, a group of grassroots activists, have kept the fire of this campaign against racial inequity alive here for over 20 years.

This work, according to Villafane, provides some relief to all the off hand insults and gestures, the micro aggressions that come with life in this rust belt city, far from her reservation home.

“Racial micro aggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color,” according to the Micro aggressions Project.

“We have experienced a lot of racial prejudice here; it wears you down,” she said.

She recalls incidents at her children’s school in which teachers told them that Native peoples were savages and that they deserved to die.

“We were taught not to rock the boat so I didn’t say anything but it made me mad,” she said.

Like many Native people of her era, the Indian Relocation Act, a federal program of assimilation that encouraged Native peoples to move from reservations to cities, sponsored her move in 1965 from the Standing Rock reservation.

“When you’re alone, it’s tough to stand up against injustice. It’s too emotionally expensive,” she noted.

After seeing the film “In Whose Honor,” a film depicting the racism of Native sports mascots, she decided to join others in her community in protesting the Cleveland Indian’s name and logo.

“I feel empowered by this work,” she said.

The continuing resistance of movement stalwarts like Villafane seems to be paying off as they are joined by growing numbers of Natives and non Natives alike who are opposed to sports names and mascots that demean Indigenous peoples.

Marchers make their way to Progressive Field. Photo by Mary Annette Pember.

About 150 people joined the protest this year outside Progressive Field including Cleveland City Council member Zack Reed.

He compares the Chief Wahoo logo to the black sambo image in terms of racial offensiveness.

“If any other racial ethnicity were targeted in this way, the image would have been wiped out years ago,” he said.

African Americans consistently support abandoning the logo and name especially when the black sambo comparison is brought in, according to Reed.

Reed noted that growing public pressure to change the Washington R word football team name has helped focus attention on the Cleveland team.

The Indians name and Chief Wahoo image reflects poorly on the city of Cleveland according to Reed who is soon taking the issue before the Cleveland city council. He hopes that the city can encourage the team to abandon the name and logo.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board has also called on the team to retire the Chief Wahoo logo.

According to the paper’s 2014 opinion page, “Americans have a long history of giving up on once-acceptable traditions when they come to realize the consequences – as unintended as they may be – of keeping them going.”

The Plain Dealer’s editorial team however, unlike other media outlets that have discontinued use of similar racist team names, continues to use the team name and logo in their daily coverage.

Plain Dealer editor George Rodrigue did not respond to ICTMN’s inquiry about the paper’s policy.

Although the team has recently changed its main logo to a block “C” and reduced depictions of Chief Yahoo at Progressive field, those opposing the name and imagery say the team has not gone far enough.

Team owner Larry Dolan refused ICTMN’s request for an interview via the baseball club’s senior director of communications Curtis Danburg who provided the following statement:

“We are very cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the conversation – our fans’ deep, long lasting attachment to the memories associated with Chief Wahoo and those who are opposed to its use. We continue to research our fan base to better understand their perception and stance on the logo, but at present time have no plans of making a change. We will continue to have the Wahoo logo represented on our uniforms and home cap during the 2015 season.”

Indeed, the grinning red-faced Indian chief was widely visible on clothing and merchandise during this 2015 opening day. Bars near Progressive Field advertising 11 a.m. “Happy Hour,” leading up to the 4 p.m. game time were packed to overflowing with celebrants.

Intoxicated fans mocked protestors at entrances to the field, making war whoops, screaming obscenities, and admonishing them to “get a job,” or “go back to the reservation.” After hours of drinking as game time approached many fans appeared as red faced and befuddled as the Chief Wahoo logo that adorned their clothing. A local radio station that was broadcasting in front of the stadium’s main entrance loudly blared fake powwow drum music.

A few passersby confronted protestors insisting that the Indians name honored Native peoples.

Fans have long maintained that the team’s name, changed from the Cleveland Naps (named to honor former team captain Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie) to the Indians in 1915 was done so in order to honor former team member Louis Sockalexis of the Penobscot tribe who played for the team from 1897 to 1899. Subsequent research has shown that the name was actually chosen by sports writers of the day at the request of team owners.

The sole tribute to Louis Sockalexis, of the Penobscot tribe, who played for team in 1897. Fans maintain team was named Indians in honor of him. Photo by Mary Annette Pember.

According to Joe Posnanski of “Hardballtalk,” Native American names were popular then for sports teams. Additionally according to Posnanski, naming the team the Indians was “a glorious opportunity for HI-larious Native American jokes and race-specific clichés and insults that fit well in headlines.”

Posnanski further noted that coverage of Sockalexis during those days nearly always included reference to collecting scalps or wampum and later firewater. Sockalexis was an alcoholic who frequently showed up for games drunk and sadly fell from grace with the team. Living on the streets of Cleveland, he died in 1913 at the age of 42, two years before the team allegedly changed its name to honor him.

Among all the statues, plaques and displays honoring past players and owners, there is a lone photograph of Sockalexis on the upper tier of Progressive Field tucked away in right field above a French fry stand.

Dangerous to be vocal

“Speaking out against racism is hard work in relocation cities like Cleveland. Sometimes our people have had to become invisible in order to survive,” said Charlene Teters, professor of Art at the Institute of American Indian Art and founder of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media.

Teters will often travel to Cleveland to support efforts there to change the team name and mascot. In addition to joining the march and demonstration, she spoke to people attending a conference at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ on Saturday regarding the mascot issue.

Villafane agreed with Teters as she listened from her post behind the information table for the Committee.

“You have to swallow so much when you live here. Our children grow up in an atmosphere of disrespect towards Native people and it gets you down,” she noted.

ILynn O'Keefe of the Seminole and Creek tribes has lived in Cleveland for over 20 years and joins Villafane in the protest each year. Like Villafane, her children also experienced racial prejudice while attending schools in the area.

Her eldest son, however, does not embrace his Native identity. “He doesn’t tell anybody he’s Native. I think he is ashamed,” she observed.

After a pause, Villafane noted, “I didn’t stand up for my kids back when they were in school, but supporting the Committee now gives me a chance to stand up for my grand kids and send the message that we don’t have to accept these racist images and names."

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