The name of the Cleveland Indians has been rooted in “racial oppression” for more than a century and the activists and academics who’ve spent decades fighting against it told The Post Friday it was high time for a change.
The professional baseball team announced Friday they will be changing its name to the Cleveland Guardians and phasing out their Chief Wahoo mascot at the end of the 2021 season following years of criticism that the branding was racist and an affront to Native Americans.
“It’s supposed to represent us but it’s a caricature of us, of indigenous people, and that’s not acceptable,” Jeff Pierce, the executive director of the American Indian Education Center for Cleveland and the People not Mascots group, told The Post.
“It was a harmful name because when people are grouped together as a caricature, it’s dehumanizing to the group of people it represents.”
Pierce, who also serves as the spokesperson for the Cleveland Ohio American Indian Movement, said the baseball team took a halfhearted approach in 2018 when they said they’d stop using the mascot but only removed it from the stadium’s banners and nowhere else.
“We are happy they’re changing [the name]. We are going to be a hundred percent convinced when they do because we are told this every year. We think the name choice is very cool and very representative of all of Cleveland,” Pierce said.
“We’re just excited that, even though it’s 50-plus years too late, they finally made the right choice.”
The team, once called the Blues, Broncos and Naps until they were named the Indians in 1915, once tried to sell the story that the moniker and mascot represented Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play pro-baseball, and the branding was an homage to his career.
Dr. Ellen Staurowsky, a professor in sports media at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, said she has spent nearly 30 years “debunking” that myth.
“What’s clear is that the franchise was suffering back in the 1910s, they were in the bottom of the league, the franchise player that they had promoting the club was going to be leaving town and they were looking for a new name,” Staurowsky said by phone.
“During that period of time, it was a period of time when Wild West shows were very popular and the appropriation of Native American imagery and storylines was something that was heavily used in promotion in all forms of entertainment, including sports teams.
“It became clear that these stories were being used to create a pretense that the images were benign, that they were not hurting anybody but they’re all part of a larger social script of racial oppression.”
Staurowsky, an internationally recognized expert on social justice issues in sports, said any kind of racial stereotyping, such as the Indians’ name and their Chief Wahoo mascot, which the team stopped using in 2018, “is going to be problematic.”
“Racial stereotypes are there for a reason and part of that reason is to maintain the control of the dominant group and it is also a reflection of how much control a group has when they can appropriate and misappropriate images of another group and do anything they want with them,” the professor explained.
“They can tell any stories they want to tell about them, they can distort history, they can make a lot of money about them and reinforce their control and in the meantime, they can also educate a populace that it’s alright to do those kinds of things,” she said.
Cynthia Connolly, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian and a member of the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition, said the use of Native American stereotypes has done irreparable harm to the community.
“There is a growing body of scientific research that clearly demonstrates Native American team names and logos reflect and reinforce harmful racial stereotypes about Native Americans,” Connolly said.
“These images and team names also contribute to low self-esteem, low community worth, increased negative feelings of stress and depression in Native people—especially in Native youth. We see these findings reflected in the experiences of our Native community members. These findings leave zero room for Native American mascots in our communities.”
Connolly called the team’s decision to change their name a “momentous occasion” and the “culmination of over 60 years of grassroots advocacy and activism by Indigenous leadership.” “Our community has worked tirelessly to be recognized as diverse and vibrant, instead of being portrayed in inaccurate and harmful ways,” she continued.
“This name change will help create a place where Native American children and their families are valued and fully seen.”
Last summer, the Washington Football Team announced they’d be shedding their “Redskins” name following similar criticisms and experts said Cleveland’s decision could lead to more changes from other teams like the Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I think it’s going to be musical chairs until the last one’s standing, it’s just going to be a domino effect from here,” said Pierce.
Staurowsky expects something similar.
“We have had a number of other corporations that have… arrived at similar conclusions as well during the past year, you know with Uncle Ben’s rice, Aunt Jemimah, and frankly all of these images come out of that early 1900s marketing advertising climate,” Staurowsky explains.
“It’s possible that we may see that other sport leaders begin to reexamine what they’re doing and can see a path towards doing something different.”