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'Stop caricaturing us': Why removing Chief Wahoo as Cleveland Indian mascot matters

After decades of protests from Indigenous Americans, the Cleveland Indians has agreed to remove Chief Wahoo as a mascot from its uniforms. Many are asking: what took so long?
While Indigenous activists are pleased to see the removal of Chief Wahoo from the Cleveland Indians' uniforms, many are asking: why did it take this long? (Mark Duncan/Associated Press)
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For decades, Indigenous rights advocates have been calling for the removal of mascots they find offensive from America sports. Finally, one sports team seems to be catching on, sort of.

Last month the Cleveland Indians announced their plan to retire the Chief Wahoo logo from their uniforms by 2019. The move ends Chief Wahoo's on-field presence, but in order to maintain ownership of the trademark, the logo will remain on merchandise.

Reactions from fans were mixed, but the change also had many asking why it took so long.

"The racist treatment of Indigenous people and ... the use of red face of Indigenous people has become intertwined with this team pride, and this sense of 'you're not a real person and I'm just wearing my version of you,'" Tara Houska, co-founder of Not Your Mascot, explained.

"I don't think most fans are intending to be offensive to Native people," Houska said, "[but when] you're saying: 'Hey it's not okay for you to dress up as my race,' I should hope that Indigenous people should be listened to."

Actual living Indian people are invisible to most Americans.- Paul  Chaat  Smith,  Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Houska sees the removal of Chief Wahoo as team mascot as a step in the right direction,but she also said it's too little, too late.

"In 2005, the American Psychological Association came out with several reports recommending the retiring of Indian mascots because they empirically showed that it's harmful to the self-esteem of Native youth," Houska told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It should have been done at that point."

Clockwise from top left: Team logos used for the Florida State Seminoles, the arrowhead of the Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Atlanta Braves.

Houska says that public opinion on Indigenous issues has been frustratingly slow to change in the United States. The Cleveland Indians are among many other American professional teams in the U.S. that employ Indigenous team names and mascots, including the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Blackhawks.

'Stop caricaturing us'

From the Tomahawk missile to the Jeep Cherokee and Pocahontas costumes at Halloween, the use of Indigenous imagery in American culture goes well beyond professional sports teams.

"I've come to conclude that the United States is kind of obsessed with Indians even though the U.S. ignores Indians," said Paul Chaat Smith, associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

He argued the only public representations of Indigenous Americans are through sports team mascots or street names, and this leaves Americans with a massive misunderstanding of Indigenous peoples. 

This is one of the most low-hanging fruit issues of basic respect and decency.- Tara Houska, co-founder of Not Your Mascot

Chatt Smith added that while Indigenous imagery is ever-present in American culture, their real lives and issues are absent.

"Actual living Indian people are invisible to most Americans. So this imagery certainly has a negative impact of imagining that we're all gone, for one thing, and that the only Indians that people actually see are these abstractions of Indians."

Houska hopes the retirement of Chief Wahoo as a mascot will be a turning point to "stop caricaturing us, stop stereotyping us."

She argued that for those who say this is a non-issue, it should be easy to change.

"This is one of the most low-hanging fruit issues of basic respect and decency."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and Exan Auyoung.