As It Happens

Cleveland Indians axing Chief Wahoo logo is 'one small step forward,' says Indigenous lawyer

Tara Houska, an Indigenous lawyer and activist, says that it's "nostalgic racism" that has allowed the team to keep its name and logo for so long.
The Cleveland Indians are taking the divisive Chief Wahoo logo off their jerseys and caps, starting in 2019. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

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When Cleveland baseball players take to the field in 2019, Chief Wahoo won't be on their uniforms  — but Indigenous lawyer Tara Houska says taking the mascot off isn't enough.

According to Major League Baseball, the Cleveland Indians will stop using the cartoonish caricature of a Native American on its team's uniforms, banners and signs next year.

But they will still play under the name Cleveland Indians, fans will still be able to purchase merchandise with the logo, and the team will hold onto the trademark

The decision comes after mounting pressure from the commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, for the team to move away from the divisive logo. 

Houska is an Indigenous lawyer and the co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a nonprofit organization that fights against the use of Indigenous stereotypes in sports. 

She spoke with As It Happens host Helen Mann about the team's decision. Here is part of their conversation. 

Tell us your thoughts today on the end of Chief Wahoo.

I think it's wonderful to see progress after so many decades of resistance, but also recognize that it wasn't quite a full "we're getting rid of the logo because it's racist." It's "we're getting rid of it because there's differing opinions and we're not actually going to do it until 2019."

Tara Houska says the Cleveland Indians refusal to completely get rid of Chief Wahoo is 'nostalgic racism.' (CBC)

So the fact that they were asked to make the decision [by] Major League Baseball, as opposed to generating the decision themselves — that bothers you a bit.

Yeah, for sure. The team owner gave an interview in which he describes, really sadly, this decision and the reporter talks about his voice cracking during it, how it's the hardest decision the team has ever had to make during its history. You know, [he] clearly was not happy about having to make this step forward toward progress.

A fan shows off the Cleveland Indians mascot on his head during the 2016 World Series. (Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

What do you see when you look at Chief Wahoo?

I see something that is a gross caricature, cartoon of a Native person and something that society has recognized that is not acceptable for other races of people, but still continues to be something that is acceptable when it comes to Native people.

The mascot isn't going to be used on uniforms after 2019, but I understand that the team will be allowed to sell the image on merchandise, at least locally. What do you make of that? Why is that happening?

It's nostalgic racism. We're acknowledging that it's racist. We're acknowledging that it's an issue, that it's offensive to to Native people, but at the same time we acknowledge that you have nostalgia about it and so that overcomes and outweighs any feelings or empirically demonstrated damage against Native people.   

The Washington Redskins logo is seen on the field before an NFL football preseason game in Landover, Md. Houska says there shouldn't be in a situation in 2018 where there is team named the Washington Redskins. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Will you continue to push for them to discontinue selling this or putting on any of their merchandise in the future?

Absolutely. You know, this… is a great step forward, but it's just one small step forward. We shouldn't be in a situation when it's now 2018 and we have a team called the Washington Redskins. We shouldn't be in a situation where we have a team called the Indians. I mean, can you imagine a team called the blacks? Or called any other race of people, for that matter? It's just not acceptable.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Cleveland Indians are a football team. In fact, they are a baseball team.