Thursday, March 4, 2004

16. Wahoo story is propaganda

Baseball is just around the corner, accompanied by the annual debate over Chief Wahoo. Each opening day brings protesters, who, more often than not, are met with a lack of respect and understanding.

So among the fastballs and hotdogs, the issue increases in intensity heating the debate over whether Chief Wahoo balances in favor of honor or racism.

Over time, and in the spirit of open-mindedness, I have changed my viewpoint on the subject - so much that I can't believe I ever though otherwise. For many, the issue entertains only superficial thought - especially if one grew up rooting for the team. In addition, it is easy to offer justification for the use of the name and mascot as a measure of honor, a point I will argue against in this column.

To begin, the discussion requires a brief history.

The Cleveland Naps in 1915 changes their name to the Cleveland Indians to, allegedly, pay homage to Louis Sockalexis, one of the first Native-Americans to play professional baseball. The honorary "mascot" consisted of an orange-faced Indian with a large nose and big teeth. Through the years, the image has undergone several changes leading to the current version of Chief Wahoo.

Since 1972, several American Indians groups have protested the use of Chief Wahoo as a mascot, including the American Indian Movement (AIM) who picketed Jacobs Field in 1994.

The most persistent argument offered by the team and its supporters is that the name change and the creation of the logo were done to honor Louis Sockalexis, an honor that, notably, he did not live long enough to receive.

There are a few problems with this account of what seems to be nothing more than propaganda, that is, a story created to silence the protests of the majority. Louis Sockalexis only played three seasons with the Indians (1897-1899), amidst racial slurs and ridicule, before prematurely ending his career after he suffered a knee injury when, while intoxicated, he jumped from a second story building.

While he was exploited as an American Indian when he played, his accomplishments and legacy (until now) was neither extraordinary nor memorable.

In 1915, a "nomenclature committee" made up of baseball writers had been selected to choose the name of the now "Napless-Naps." The Cleveland Press did run an article soliciting new nicknames.

However, the results of this solicitation subsequently listed in the paper did not include Indians. Furthermore, the articles in the local papers announcing the new team name neither mention Louis Sockalexis nor assert that the name was even permanent. Thus, the account that the name came from a fan "in honor of Louis Sockalexis" is most likely both erroneous and improbable.

Even if the name was intended to honor Louis Sockalexis, there is a difference between original intention and current perception. Mascots are typically animals of ferocity, or admiration, not races of people.

Furthermore, they should not be conquered people, whose land was invaded, whose families were butchered. What honor could possibly be realized as they are caricaturized and ridiculed (e.g. white people dressing up like Indians, a fake teepee in the stands)?

Let us further note that the wearing of eagle feathers, religious changing, and dancing were sacred to the Indians and their way of life. The depiction of our views in respect to the history and treatment of Indians has been consistently less than honorary.

Imagine other races so insensitively exploited. Could one suggest another race that would tolerate its worst caricature plastered on a baseball hat? Or its sacred culture stereotypically imitates and ridiculed? The point could be better made with examples, though the idea is so offensive that I dare not offer them.

Finally, the idea that early 1900 America would honor the first Native-American to play baseball, by naming a team after him, is preposterous, especially considering that baseball was 30 years away from allowing the first African-American to even step on the diamond.

Therefore it seems that, as sport sociologist Ellen Staurowsky aptly reasons, "Through the manipulation of selected information, the franchise uses a partially fictionalized "Indian" past for purposes of silencing the protests of real Indians in the present. As a consequence, the majority are empowered to reject the notion that the ball club's name and logo are racist while ignoring protests from some Native-Americans and their allies."

If the Cleveland baseball team wants to recognize Louis Sockalezis, they should build a sculpture in his likeness, or retire his number. If they want to honor the Native-Americans, they should consider a new nickname and a new mascot, for, alas, a new peace treaty is probably out of the question.

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