The Cleveland Indians will be removing “Chief Wahoo,” the bright red caricature of a Native American the team uses as a logo, from players’ caps and uniforms starting in 2019.
The divisive logo, which has been publicly protested as a racist and offensive image for decades, will remain on official merchandise available for purchase by fans.
“The team must maintain a retail presence so that MLB and the Indians can keep ownership of the trademark,” The Associated Press reports.
The Indians announced the change on Monday. The team name — which has also been criticized as offensive — will not be changing.
“Major League Baseball is committed to building a culture of diversity and inclusion throughout the game,” MLB’s commissioner, Robert D. Manfred Jr., said in a statement. “Over the past year, we encouraged dialogue with the Indians organization about the Club’s use of the Chief Wahoo logo. During our constructive conversations, [Indians CEO] Paul Dolan made clear that there are fans who have a longstanding attachment to the logo and its place in the history of the team.
“Nonetheless, the club ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball, and I appreciate Mr. Dolan’s acknowledgement that removing it from the on-field uniform by the start of the 2019 season is the right course,” Manfred said.
Ray Halbritter, a member of Oneida Nation and the leader of the “Change the Mascot” protest campaign, celebrated the change.
“The Cleveland baseball team has rightly recognized that Native Americans do not deserve to be denigrated as cartoon mascots, and the team’s move is a reflection of a grassroots movement that has pressed sports franchises to respect Native people,” Halbritter said in a statement.
Other Native activists expressed more skepticism.
“It’s a small step in the right direction, but it is just that — a small step,” Cleveland activist Sundance told NPR.
Sundance, a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation and the executive director of the Cleveland American Indian Movement, has been a long-standing critic of Chief Wahoo.
“The team is still going to be able to license Wahoo and make money off of that racist image,” he says. “The environment down at the stadium is not going to change for the better. … People are still going to wear Wahoo to the stadium, they are still going to dress in red face, they are still going to give war whoops, all under the rubric of being Indian.”
Sundance was involved in a lawsuit back in 1972, attempting to force the team to drop the logo.
As Indian Country Today reports, Native resistance to the logo has continued ever since, including at annual opening day protests:
“Those Native American protesters who gather at the ironically named Progressive Field—some of them members of the Cleveland American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance—have not been met with open arms or friendly words. Cleveland’s baseball fans have hurled beer cans and spat on them. The protesters have been called stupid and ‘Custer-killers.’ Cleveland AIM calls the use of the Chief Wahoo mascot ‘bigoted, racist and shameful,’ and the Committee of 500 complains that the logo is a negative stereotype against indigenous people.”
Protesters have objected to the Cleveland Indians’ name as well as to the Chief Wahoo image.
And those protests will continue, Sundance says. “We’re still going to be out there on opening day, until that name is changed,” he says.
The National Congress of American Indians praised MLB for “setting the example for how professional sports leagues can and should respect Native peoples.”
Other sports teams — most conspicuously, Washington’s football team — have also faced decades of protest and criticism for their use of offensive racial stereotypes, caricatures or slurs as official names or mascots. But notably, the debate over the Cleveland Indians logo has resulted in visible changes, as The Associated Press notes:
“Under growing pressure to eliminate Chief Wahoo, the club has been transitioning away from the logo in recent years. The Indians introduced a block ‘C’ insignia on some of their caps and have removed signs with the Wahoo logo in and around Progressive Field, the team’s downtown ballpark.
“National criticism and scrutiny about the Indians’ allegiance to Chief Wahoo grew in 2016, when the Indians made the World Series and Manfred expressed his desire to have the team eradicate the symbol. Earlier in that postseason, a lawsuit was filed while the club was playing in Toronto to have the logo and team name banned from appearing on Canadian TV. That court case was dismissed by a judge.
“The Indians’ bid to host the 2019 All-Star Game, which it was ultimately awarded, further heightened debate over Wahoo.”
Supporters of the logo have expressed frustration and sorrow to see it go — and promised that it’s not disappearing from stands.
“Sadly, the Indians caved to the politically correct society that we are now all forced to live in,” Zach Sharon of Cleveland Sports Talk wrote. He said the logo is a representation of the team — one that reminds fans of the glory years of the ’90s, when “those great teams all sported the Chief Wahoo on their jerseys and those memories give myself and other fans goosebumps.”
“Thankfully, fans will continue to wear their Chief Wahoo apparel, probably even more now,” Sharon wrote. “I know I will. You’ll see it in the stands and around the city every Indians game. It’ll never truly go away.”
Cleveland lawyer and sportswriter Peter Pattakos, who opposes the logo, also predicted that the change will lead to more Chief Wahoo in stands, not less. For him, that was a cause for frustration, not celebration.
Pattakos spoke to NPR in 2014, after he tweeted out a viral photo of a Native man confronting an Indians fan in red face. He described how he grew from a kid who “didn’t think of a Native American at all” when he saw the logo to an adult fan who says “the impact is so obviously racist and demeaning.”
Now he is frustrated with how MLB decided to implement this change.
“If they acknowledge that ‘the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball,’ what’s the excuse for waiting until 2019?” he tweeted. And the name hasn’t changed, he noted, writing, “Cowardly half-measures won’t do.”
Adrienne King, a Cherokee writer who runs a blog about the appropriation of Native cultures, met the news with a celebratory word — “FINALLY!!!”
She celebrated the fact that instead of just quietly changing the logo, MLB said it was inappropriate to use.
“Important to note: Even with this decision, you can still buy Chief Wahoo merch in Ohio and at the stadium, and the name is still the Indians,” she wrote on Twitter. “Not done fighting, but BIG step.”