Indians’ Chief Wahoo logo is derogatory and racist

The image sits there in LeBron James’ Instagram account, posted at the start of the MLB postseason on Oct. 6, a simultaneous symbol of the baseball team from Ohio that he’s now rooting for and the struggle for which he obviously doesn’t care.

There it is, a camouflage baseball cap featuring the grinning, red-faced Chief Wahoo, the controversial but still-recognizable symbol of the Cleveland Indians, James’ hometown team. And there it is, on James’ Instagram, displayed as a sign of pure fandom and nothing more.

Except it’s so much more, another sign of how misguided and fragmented we often are in the battle against racial injustice. Chief Wahoo stands for absolutely nothing good, a derogatory image and racial injustice toward the Native American people, but LeBron James, a leading voice against racial injustice against African-Americans, has missed that.

He’s neither malicious nor alone, though, something that’s being revealed this week, with the entire sports nation in Cleveland for the World Series getting underway Tuesday. The national discussion on racial injustice is at its loudest now, but it remains myopic, with minorities too often focused on their own causes, too frequently ignoring what Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, calls “a vile-looking logo that’s probably the most disgusting, racist emblem out there.”

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“I would not don a shirt with somebody in blackface and wear that,” Holden says. “I have more respect for black people. But that’s what this (Chief Wahoo) is.”

LeBron James should know better.

LeBron James should know better.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The idea of a race serving as the name of a franchise is preposterous at its core, something ESPN’s Bomani Jones showcased earlier this year, when he wore a T-shirt modeled after the Indians’ logo, with “Caucasian” replacing the word “Cleveland, and a smiling blonde white man replacing Chief Wahoo.

“It’s a matter of education,” Holden says. “I would hope and I would think that if people realized what they were doing, they would not be doing this. But you never know.”

You never know because while everyone can now quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” axiom, but too many are cognizant of their own causes but ignorant (or unwilling to take a stand) to solve anyone else’s. And this is why change to all this racial injustice comes at such a glacial pace: Minorities still routinely fight for their own communities more than they actually fight against racial injustice.

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So we have the #OscarsSoWhite discussion that has no problem poking fun at Asians in February. And we have James, eloquent (and justifiably and impressively so) in discussing the litany of horrors that African-Americans must endure, yet unaware of how sporting the Chief Wahoo lid fuels Native American injustice festering in his own backyard.

And it’s Native Americans who this week bear the brunt of all this national ignorance, as happens to them often. Unlike other minorities, they lack powerful voices championing their concerns, and Holden knows why: As of 2015, according to U.S. census information, they made up just 1.2% of the population.

“We don’t have the numbers,” says Holden. “We don’t have the clout that comes with being a large, significant part of the population.”

So they are the stereotype that we contentedly accept from our sports teams, whether those by the Chicago Blackhawks or the Atlanta Braves or the NFL team in Washington, whose name the Daily News banned, or these Indians.

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The Indians know Chief Wahoo is wrong and insulting to Native Americans, too, tacitly admitting that fact last spring, when Indians owner Paul Dolan announced that the red-blocked “C” would replace the red-faced chief as the team’s primary logo. The franchise has spent 102 years with an entire race of people as its team name, ever since 1914, when the club needed a name to replace the “Naps,” after the departure of Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie. Supposedly, the baseball writers of that era chose the new name, although Native Americans have expressed discontent about that name since the 1970s.

This...this is not okay.

This…this is not okay.

(Charlie Riedel/AP)

Ignoring those concerns and their own owner’s promise to move away from the red-faced logo, the Indians have donned their Wahoo caps throughout these playoffs, and the club has just kept right on selling Wahoo merchandise. And why stop? James and the rest of the masses focused on Cleveland (all far from evil people) will happily gobble up baseball caps and T-shirts with the offensive caricature.

Those sales numbers validate things like the Washington Post survey in May which claimed that nine out of 10 Native Americans didn’t mind the team name of Washington’s NFL franchise, leaving Holden to fight an uphill battle to prove that poll isn’t bogus.

“We’re all skeptical of that,” he says. “I can probably do a poll and make it come out the way I want it to. It makes just no sense at all.”

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The heritage of all the red-skinned stereotypes, he says, bothers Native Americans not just because of the appropriation of cultural dress and backward assumption, but because they call back to a time when Native Americans were killed for the bounties on their heads.

The Indians claim they are moving away from Chief Wahoo yet they've continue to wear the logo throughout the postseason.

The Indians claim they are moving away from Chief Wahoo yet they’ve continue to wear the logo throughout the postseason.

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Indian stereotype is about murder, Holden says, citing Dr. Charlene Teeters, dean of the Institute of American Indian Arts.

In 2014, Teeters told WCCO in Minnesota that the term and all ideas associated with it are “the equivalent of the N-word.” According to WCCO, the word first ran in print in September of 1863, in The Winona Daily Republican, in an add that stated “The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.”

“When we hear the word ‘redskins,’ it refers to a time when you could make money off of killing Indian people,” she said then.

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Holden can think of only an ugly, crude comparison for the Indians logo.

“That’s a connotation of death,” he says. “So is a noose. Why not put somebody in a noose and put that on the ballfield? You wouldn’t.”

And yet there that connotation of Native American death sits, an example of racial injustice in the Instagram account of LeBron James, champion against racial injustice.

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cleveland indians
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