The Cleveland Indians emerged victorious in the American League Championship Series and as the team prepares for the upcoming World Series against the Chicago Cubs, they are leaving behind a controversial five game series with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The focal point of the series for not only baseball fans but also human rights activists and several Aboriginal communities across Canada was the controversial name and logo of the “Cleveland team” as broadcasters began to refer to them. People taking offense to the name and logo argued that Cleveland has essentialized a marginalized ethnic group and then commodified a racial stereotype based on their likeness for monetary gain. The controversy began when Douglas Cardinal, an Aboriginal rights activist and residential school survivor, filed a human rights injunction against the Cleveland Indians, MLB and Rogers Communications to ban the team logo and name during the ALCS. The case culminated on October 17 as Judge Tom McEwen rejected the injunction just hours before game three of the series was set for the opening pitch. If you have never seen the logo which sparked the public outcry, it can only be described as a smirking red skinned caricature of a male Aboriginal face named “Chief Wahoo” who wears a red feather.
“In my opinion, the decision was made out of convenience because there is an understanding that they can’t hide the logo, it’s everywhere. I read that Cleveland has a new logo so for them to keep the old one I see it as a financial decision,” said Josiah Nahwegahbow, a Brock alumni and advocate for Indigenous rights. “It’s insensitive but it’s on thousands of fans shirts and products so changing something in a week is difficult. What happened with the court case helps push Indigenous interests forward, even though they got to show the logo what happened was a good thing because it made the discussion relevant for a lot of people,”
In order to further understand the issue at hand, it is essential to revisit the 100 plus years of baseball history in Cleveland. In the early 1900’s Cleveland’s baseball team was known as the “Blue Birds” or “Blues” for short. Then from 1903 to 1914 they were known as the Cleveland Naps, named after a star player/manager, Napolean Lajoie. Throughout this time period their name was interchangeable as the Cleveland Americans and Cleveland Baseball Club. Up until this point, the team sported “Cleveland” in block letters arched across their jerseys or alternative jerseys would sometimes have a stylized “C” or a block “C” in the upper right quadrant of the shirt. Ball caps and fan merchandise also exhibited the famous “C” the team was so well known for. Suddenly, in 1915 local sportswriters picked the nickname “Indians” and the name hasn’t changed since, however, the same cannot be said about the team’s logo. From 1929 to 1945 the team used two different logos depicting the side profile of an Aboriginal male, an admittedly very similar image to today’s Chicago Blackhawks logo in the NHL. The Chief Wahoo logo was reported to be commissioned in 1947 and since then the team has used four different versions of the Native American caricature. The logo that is most prominent today began circulation in 1979 and to manage growing criticism, the owners of the baseball club officially switched the logo to a new red block “C” letter as of 2014 and promised to begin to phase out the Chief Wahoo logo. Unfortunately, most merchandise sold today still carries the infamous Chief Wahoo image and nickname of the team. Even during their most recent games at the Rogers Center the team prominently wore ball caps and jerseys with the Chief Wahoo crest as well as “Indians” scrawled across their chests.
The Toronto Star interviewed pedestrians in Toronto as the ALCS and this controversy was coming to a head last week and many Cleveland fans and supporters’ arguments could be summarized by Georgos Fragiskatos who said, “I think its stood for this long and the people of Cleveland love it. They support their team and the team supports its fans so I say leave it the way it is, it’s been around for so long, why not?” A common theme for consenters of the team name cited the history of the team as an institution. Why change something when its been around for so long?
“As a sports fan I believe that a team’s name should stay the same the day it’s decided. We’re becoming a very censored society and everyone looks at things through such a negative lens. Can’t we turn it around and make it an empowering symbol?” asked Concurrent Education student, Melissa Lostracco as she watched Game 5 of the ALCS at Isaac’s Sky Bar.
Those against the Cleveland name and logo argue that the team is using outdated terminology which also carries a racist connotation. They also question how people would react if there was a team named after another ethnic group and whether or not people would accept it as normal.
“It’s hard to change opinion because some people are not used to sensitive subjects. I would think we need to try to explain the situation and educate people who don’t see the issue with this topic,” said Nahwegahbow.
Despite which side one takes for this controversy, it is difficult to ignore this and label it as an isolated incident. Other teams like the Washington Redskins, Chicago Blackhawks and Atlanta Braves all use cultural appropriation in the branding of their franchises. Braves fans even participate in something called the “Tomahawk Chop” as 30,000 fans make offensive Native American chants when a pitcher is about to strike out a batter. Furthermore, these teams and their names percolate through the sporting world as non-professional and youth teams borrow their logos and perpetuate the issue on a larger scale.