The Cleveland professional baseball franchise adopted the “Indians” name nearly 100 years ago. As this anniversary approaches, it is important to reflect on the name’s historical and present day meanings. Much has changed with regard to U.S. race relations since 1915. In 1924, almost 10 years after the “Indians” name was adopted, American Indians were granted the rights of citizenship. Forty years later, legal racial segregation was banished with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In addition, the way we think about and talk about race has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. As celebrities such as Don Imus and Paula Deen know well, myriad words that once were commonly used are no longer acceptable to Americans who now understand the power of language to shape reality and perpetuate, among other things, inequality.
Words are powerful because they conjure images and ideas. The “Indians” team name was adopted because it evoked particular meanings for sports enthusiasts – aggression, bravery, dedication, and pride. Such images of American Indians seem honorable when American history is ignored. The fact is that references to Indian “aggression” were used to justify the genocide and colonization of U.S. indigenous peoples. That reference now puts a different spin on the use of “Indians” as an athletic team name – one that exists alongside aggressive animals, like Lions, Tigers, and Bears.
Calling Cleveland’s professional baseball team the “Indians” does not only equate American Indian people with ferocious animals in the symbolic realm. It affects the everyday lives of American Indians because stereotypical ideas about Indians, embedded in the culture for hundreds of years, have replaced genuine concerns for the identities, communities, and cultures of American Indian people. The treatment of American Indian protestors outside the Cleveland baseball stadium illustrates this point. Protestors witness first-hand how the purportedly "harmless" team name causes baseball fans to callously disregard the history and humanity of American Indian people. They angrily yell insults like "Go back to where you came from!" and "We won, so get lost!” at protestors. They also don feathers and face paint for entertainment purposes, although these items are sacred to American Indian people. Fans supporting their much adored “Tribe” simultaneously snub their noses at (or flip the bird to) actual Indians struggling to convey a simple message: We are people, not mascots.
Despite these challenges, the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance remains steadfast in its opposition to the use of the “Indians” name and “Chief Wahoo” mascot of the Cleveland baseball franchise. We urge you to join us in protesting a team name that bolsters stereotypes and perpetuates discrimination against American Indian people. It is time to lay these historical relics to rest and to help Cleveland become a twenty-first century city where all people are treated with respect and dignity.
Michelle R. Jacobs is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh. A former resident of Northeast Ohio, she earned her Ph.D. from Kent State University in 2012. Her area of specialization is U.S. race relations, with a particular focus on issues affecting indigenous peoples.