By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 29, 1999
c.1999 Newhouse News Service
CLEVELAND, OHIO – Juan Reyna is a Cleveland Indian, but the only record he is compiling at Jacobs Field is an arrest record.
Why? Because Reyna is not a baseball player but a genuine American Indian who lives in Cleveland. He has twice been arrested for protesting his hometown ballclub’s appropriation of his ethnic identity for fun and profit; arrested, with others, for burning effigies of Chief Wahoo, the ballclub’s bright red, big-toothed, big-nosed, madly grinning cartoon mascot, who the team’s management insists should be seen as an icon of honor.
Come the home opener, April 12, Reyna and his allies will be outside Jacobs Field once again.
“It’s not about baseball,” says Reyna, a Mexican Apache who heads a local group called the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance. “It’s about racism.”
As a new baseball season begins, American Indian activists will renew their efforts to end the use of Indian names and images by sports teams. And while Cleveland’s Indians and Atlanta’s Braves seem unlikely to shed their Native American trappings any time soon, the long-standing campaign to rein in the use of Indian mascots in sports appears to be gaining traction.
In recent years, scores of colleges and universities have shed their Indian names and symbols. St. Johns University in New York went from the Redmen to the Red Storm, Miami University of Ohio from the Redskins to the Red Hawks, Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma from the Redskins to the Crimson Storm. The Los Angeles and Dallas school systems have done away with Indian team names.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is due to decide shortly on a suit brought by American Indian activists to cancel federal protection for the Washington Redskins trademark because, activists say, it is patently offensive.
A group of institutional investors _ the New York-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility _ has persuaded the makers of Budweiser and Miller beers and Coca-Cola to stop using Chief Wahoo and his ilk in their advertising. Likewise, the Denny’s restaurant chain has instructed its employees in the Cleveland area not to wear Wahoo at work.
In the February Harvard Law Review, a third-year law student, Aaron Strider Colangelo, outlined a legal strategy that could be used to bring public accommodations civil rights suits against professional sports teams _ whether it’s baseball’s Braves or Indians, football’s Redskins or Kansas City Chiefs, or hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks.
The heart of Colangelo’s claim: “The use of Indian team names and mascots denies American Indians the full and equal enjoyment of a place of public accommodation” _ the stadium.
And in early March, under the pressure of an unprecedented U.S. Justice Department civil rights inquiry, the Buncombe County, N.C., board of education voted to drop the use of “Squaws” as “an expression of pride and school spirit” for the girls’ athletic teams at Erwin High School after it was informed that in some Indian languages “squaw” translates as “vagina.” (The board decided to keep “Warriors” for the boys’ teams, as well as the school’s 30-foot statue of an Indian, tomahawk in hand.)
“Nationally, it’s almost like a brush fire, and Cleveland just has to be a part of it,” says Reyna. “Cleveland either has to come clean or look really stupid.”
But it will be a while before Cleveland finds itself alone. Despite recent changes, there remain literally thousands of school teams with Indian names in America.
“It’s Indians and animals, that’s basically it,” says Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Indian who is president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Indian rights organization based in Washington.
In Ohio alone, according to a national inventory compiled by the Detroit chapter of the American Indian Movement, there are 218 elementary schools, high schools and colleges with Indian mascots _ 122 Indians, 51 warriors, 21 redskins, 17 braves, 6 chiefs and one redmen. Massachusetts has 30; New Jersey, 71; New York, 161; and California, 181. It is a good bet that not a single one of these schools could change its name without a divisive and emotional fight.
The Justice Department inquiry in North Carolina clearly raised the ante on the issue, and elicited the loudest howls of protest and mockery. It was, in the words of an editorial in the Las Vegas Review Journal, a case of “political correctness on crack.”
It is a sentiment echoed in Cleveland.
“I’m 66; I grew up in a different era. I just have a problem with this idea that everything is supposed to be so politically perfect,” says Jed Weisman, a Cleveland attorney whose father, Lefty Weisman, was the Indians’ trainer from 1921 to 1949. “Why are we always bending to the minority opinion?”
Hugh Morgan, a Cleveland tax attorney who presides over the Wahoo Club, a leading booster group, agrees. “I have a lot of trouble understanding why it is an issue. To me, (Wahoo) doesn’t cast any aspersions on the Indian race. If anything, it’s a strong, positive symbol.”
James Fenelon is a sociologist at Cleveland’s John Carroll University who did a recent scholarly study, “Wahoo: Window Into the World of Racism.” He says that Morgan’s attitude typifies the response of most white Clevelanders in his survey.
Fenelon says he was quickly labeled a troublemaker on campus when, shortly after he arrived in the late summer of 1995, he complained that the Indians’ Wahoo flag was flying just below the American flag on campus. To Fenelon, the message delivered by a flag with nothing on it but the word “Indians” and a ridiculous caricature of a chief named Wahoo was not hard to decipher.
“It’s not symbolic racism, it’s flat-out, in-your-face, shove-it-up-your-rear-end racism,” says Fenelon, who is a Standing Rock Sioux.
More curious to Fenelon than the question of why some Indian activists like himself are so determined to retire Wahoo and the Indians name, is why so many Clevelanders are so determined to retain them. “Assuming it’s just a symbol, why do people want to keep it? Why are they so attached to it?” he asks.
“It’s nostalgia, it’s their childhood,” says Juanita Helphrey, a Hidatsa Indian, who works on justice issues for the United Church of Christ, which is headquartered in Cleveland, and who was arrested with Reyna during the 1997 World Series protest. (The judge threw out the charges after the prosecution presented its case.)
But it’s now nostalgia recharged by success.
The Cleveland team has won its division four years in a row. When the 1998 regular season ended, it had sold out the previous 292 home games, a record. And Chief Wahoo sells, not just in Cleveland but across the nation.
His image is emblazoned on everything the team can think to sell. It’s on shirts, hats, jackets, earrings, beds, blankets, bobbing-head dolls, even on old stadium lights that are being sold to fans, “mounted on a sturdy wood base,” at $200 apiece. And, under a new state law, Wahoo may now appear on motor vehicle license plates.
“As long as I own the team, Wahoo’s with us,” team owner Richard Jacobs said in a 1995 interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. “He’s part of the woven fabric of the team.”
Last year, when the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church was considering an anti-Wahoo resolution, Bonnie Beeman, an active churchwoman from Mt. Vernon, near Columbus, was quoted in a church newsletter saying, “I would cease being a United Methodist before I would cease wearing my Chief Wahoo clothing.”
The resolution was soundly defeated and, says Beeman, “everybody around here agreed with me.”
“I was raised in the church and on Cleveland sports,” says Beeman, explaining that she did not like seeing the two brought into conflict _ unnecessarily, in her mind.
“It’s become a religion in a sense,” says Reyna.
It is a thought that has occurred to John Grabowski, research director at the Western Reserve Historical Society museum in Cleveland. There, the nearly 30-foot neon Wahoo sign that adorned the old Municipal Stadium from 1962 to 1994 (it rotated until 1978), becoming a virtual city trademark, now resides, refurbished and alight.
“To create an image of this size and then to almost revere it, it’s almost like idol worship,” says Grabowski.
And yet, Indian activists are often told to lighten up when they complain about the use of sacred objects _ like feathers _ in sports mascots like Wahoo, or object to fans engaging in stupidly stereotypical Indian behavior _ like going “Woo woo woo” while patting their hands to their mouths, or cutting the air with the tomahawk chop favored by Atlanta Braves fans.
“It’s what the crowd likes to do,” Jane Fonda, the first lady of the Atlanta Braves, said last year before the National Press Club in Washington. “There are more important issues for Native Americans to work on than the tomahawk chop.”
But to Clevelander Beverly Jones, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Wahoo matters.
In October 1996, Jones dropped by her children’s elementary school to see why her son, Jeremiah, an excellent student, was doing less well of late. Cleveland was in the midst of a league championship series with the Baltimore Orioles, and when Jones arrived the school was in the throes of a Cleveland Indians spirit day.
“It was just a madhouse,” Jones recalls. “There was Wahoo everywhere.” Her son was humiliated, and she took him and his sister, Janet, home. “I have never put them back,” says Jones, who has been home-schooling them ever since.
Jeremiah, now 13, recalls the pain when friends turned on him for criticizing Wahoo. “They teased me, whooping and hollering, acting stupid.”
Harjo, who is the lead plaintiff in the trademark case against the Washington Redskins, recalls the one Washington football game she attended. It was 1974 and she and her husband had been given tickets.
“We couldn’t stay,” she recalls. “People right around us were asking, `Are you Indian? You’re Indian, aren’t you?’ People started pinching us in the arms, pulling on our hair, touching us. I’m not comfortable being surrounded by drunken white guys poking me and pulling my hair. We left right away.”
While Harjo considers “redskins” the worst epithet for Indian, John Paul Reiner, the New York attorney representing the Redskins in the trademark case, insists, “The Redskins have always used the term to honor Native Americans.”
Likewise, the Cleveland ballclub claims that the team was named early in this century for Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who very briefly starred with Cleveland’s national league franchise.
But Sockalexis’ legacy is a melancholy one. The Cleveland Press reported in 1897 that he was often greeted by fans’ “war whoops” and “yells of derision.” And his career ended after only 94 games, a casualty of alcoholism.
Fenelon says European-Americans began to romanticize Indians, and name teams for them, once they were effectively wiped out, a perverse coda of post-genocidal respect. But, says Fenelon, many whites who live hard by Indian reservations continue to despise and discriminate against them. In Cleveland, where real conflict with Indians has receded into the unremembered past, there are now only about 3,000 real Indians.
The inherent danger is that to most Clevelanders, Indians are nothing but a ballclub named for a long-gone people, with no more modern reality than Vikings or Pirates.
“We’re a living people, a living culture,” says Vernon Bellecourt, an Ojibwe from Minnesota and national spokesman for the American Indian Movement. “John Wayne didn’t get us all,” says Bellecourt, who heads the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media and who was twice arrested with Reyna. “We’re still here.”