The Problem with the Chief (Daryll)

This week the Cleveland Indians announced that they will no longer be featuring Chief Wahoo, their cartoon depiction of a hyperbolic personification of Native Americans. Ohio, in fact, does come from the Seneca word for “beautiful river”, but the logo has been under fire for many years. It first appeared on the teams uniform in 1948, ironically also the last time the team won the World Series.

Yesterday Giuseppe covered the news, but I wanted to delve into it just a bit more. John Smoltz reacted to the news with this statement:

This has been a discussion,” he said. “I look back ever since ’95 when we, ironically, played the Indians in the World Series. There were protests. I think that’s really kind of the start.”

This, of course, is true, when both teams in a World Series achieve national prominence, especially since neither one had been very good for a long time. The Indians were so bad they inspired a movie franchise about their ineptitude, and the Braves were so under the radar in the 80’s their owner Ted Turner managed a game once and also rode an ostrich during a race in the outfield.

Smoltz thinks it is the Indians being good that especially forces the issue: “We never saw that when we were losing 100-some games,” he said. “It just wasn’t part of the deal. But as soon as it got to a higher visibility … that’s when we started seeing it.”

I think Smoltz and many who see the logo as just “a part of history” aren’t quite looking at the full story here. First of all, it’s not just the Indians. The Braves, certainly the Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Blackhawks should all be watching this closely.

America as a whole, if you didn’t know, has a pretty bad history of how we dealt with the Native Americans / Indians of this land. If you didn’t know – we called them Indians because when ole Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two – he wanted to get rich in India. When he sailed into some islands in the Caribbean – he thought he was there.

He was off. WAY OFF!

Yet the name persisted – and the Indians became the embodiment of America’s Manifest Destiny as they systemically attacked, tricked, lied to, and killed for the white people to take over their land and expand west. Eventually, it ended in the Trail of Tears as American’s “settled” the land that Native Americans had lived on for years. As America battled racial and economic impasses that would lead to the Civil War, no one disagreed on how the Indians should be treated.

Images of Indians as savages in red war paint, tomahawk chopping innocent women and children or taking them out with their arrowheads and bows became the propaganda that proved how militant and uncivilized these natives were and that they deserved what they were getting from the US Government. Andrew Jackson declared in his first address to Congress in 1829 as he announced the Indian Removal Act:

“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation…Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth…In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes. Nor is there anything in this which, upon a comprehensive view of the general interests of the human race, is to be regretted. Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the conditions in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”

So Indian likenesses like Chief Wahoo should be a horrible reminder of how our country ancestors saw and treated these people as we rationalized their extermination. When we celebrate Indians as team sports logos, it’s a self-indulgent reminder that “we won” over a “once and powerful race” by convincing ourselves that they were now turned savage and not worthy of being treated as any sort of equal. We created the war image only when they were defending themselves from a people that assumed ownership of a land that was not theirs to take.

Congratulations to the Indians who have taken the first step while somehow the Redskins who seem to be the next most egregious example of a racist logo than one honoring the great tribes of the past. Even if not until 2019, which I think is just silly if you are acknowledging that the logo should be changing.

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