The Indians' home opener last Friday made local and national headlines, but not for baseball. Photos of a fan in redface talking to a Native American who was protesting the Tribe's Chief Wahoo logo outside of Progressive Field went viral before the game's final pitch had been thrown. The photos showed up promptly and prominently on Deadspin, NBC Sports, ESPN and other sites.
The local chapter of the American Indian Movement and a small, dedicated cohort has been protesting Wahoo since 1973. But recent vocal opposition by city councilmen and the "historic stance" against Chief Wahoo by the Plain Dealer's editorial board has thrust the issue more centrally into local conversations. Scene welcomes those conversations, and feels they're a long time coming. We've been calling Chief Wahoo just what it is for years: a dehumanizing caricature, a red Sambo.
Pedro Rodriguez, the redfaced fan, and Robert Roche, the Native American protester, have become the region's most visible representatives of the pro- and anti- Wahoo camps.
The stirring and much-publicized image begged the question: Who would have the balls and the stomach to confront a person belonging to a specific race of people while dressed and garishly made up in a costume that mocks (or at the very least trivializes) that specific race of people, and then inform that person that he could not possibly be — and in fact, had no right to be — offended by the costume and the makeup?
Answer: Pedro Rodriguez, that's who (or at least it appeared). There was a bit more to the backstory on how Rodriguez and Roche became subject to so much media attention.
Peter Pattakos, occasional Scene contributor, local attorney, and ardent spokesman for the anti-sin tax movement, wrote that he had been outside Progressive Field filming a documentary on the protests when he encountered the redfaced Rodriguez. His photo was immediately and widely shared (and now grace's Scene's cover).
"The two of us had a brief conversation in which Rodriguez communicated a lack of empathy for the perspective of the Native American protesters who find Wahoo and the Indians name to be dehumanizing and an illegitimate appropriation of their culture," Pattakos wrote on Cleveland Frowns. "I then asked him if he would say the same things he was saying to me to an actual Native American. He replied that he would (it would have been hard for him to have said no at that point), so I offered to introduce him to the AIM protesters, who were about 20 yards away."
Rodriguez was far and away more courteous, sober and responsive than many of the fans ambling along E. 9th en route to Gate C. Rodriguez maintained that Chief Wahoo and his outfit were all about Cleveland pride.
The craziest thing about Friday's protest was the length to which the Pro-Wahoo crowd was prepared to go to deny the legitimacy of those offended by the logo. Rodriguez at least listened; his pro-Wahoo comrades mainly yelled. It was at times an embarrassing and primitive display.
Only twice in three hours did we observe pro-Wahoo folks talk politely with the protesters about the root of their opposition or try to explain their own difficulties with the logo. (One man turned his Wahoo hat around after his conversation with Roche as a little peace offering).
For the most part, though, passers-by hurled insults. A handful of boozy risk-takers sporting "Keep the Chief" tees walked directly in front of those holding signs, to taunt. Others distributed individual middle-fingers to each protester while inviting them to fuck themselves. Others launched the familiar hate speech — "Go back to the reservation," etc. — from safe distances.
Among the other notable responses: "Talk to Obama if you think it's racist." "It's a fucking cartoon. Come on!" "[The protesters] are not even Indians!" "Find something better to protest." "It's funny because they all look homeless." "You're dumbasses. You hear me? Dumbasses." "We're trying to celebrate an American pastime." "Keep the Chief! Keep the Chief! Keep the Chief!" "Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you."
Both Roche and Sundance, the protest's organizer, said they felt that momentum was on their side this year. Roche, who's been protesting since 1973, said he'd never seen people so vocal (though he relayed incidents of physical altercations, of which there were none on Friday).
Rodriguez, for his part, never backed away from the initial invitation or the attention that followed. He gave an extensive interview the next day to Aaron Goldhammer on WKNR.
"From the start, it was never my intent nor was I going to the protest by my own behalf to say I'm going to start trouble," Rodrigues said. "I was minding my own business, but I had to at least explain my side of why I was wearing the outfit. I shook his hand because I wanted to shake his hand. I don't like people who go 50 feet away and make comments and then run away."
He reiterated to Goldhammer the same thing he said on Friday: that his outfit, which he says he's worn to ten home openers, was all about Cleveland and that he was a huge Indians' fan. He said he was disappointed that the photo made him seem insensitive and that he respected the Native Americans' opinions. "He said his piece, and I said mine."
"Never was I trying to offend the Native Americans," he said. "And people who know me know that I'm a huge Indians fan and would never do anything to embarrass my beloved city of Cleveland."
But Rodriguez has no plans on stopping, though he does admit that maybe, just maybe some aspects of Chief Wahoo need to change.
"I'm going to say it publicly, if the Indians changed the caricature — and I do agree, the nose and skin's gotta change — Chief Wahoo needs to stay," he said. "I will go again as Chief Wahoo. I'm strongly about this."
The Indians' franchise seems less strongly about Wahoo, but it's hard to know for sure. During the offseason, the team officially made the "Block C" the primary team logo in place of Chief Wahoo. It caused the usual online backlash and rote denials from the organization: Chief Wahoo isn't going anywhere, they said.
It would seem, though, that as Wahoo does disappear from Progressive Field and the uniforms, the Tribe might do away with him for good if they could do so quietly, without publicly announcing as such. At some point, they should take a stand.
But though the community continues to talk about it, the Indians have remained mum (per usual). Bob DiBiasio, the Indians' VP of Public Affairs, didn't respond to a request for comment.
The hope now is that incidents like the one between Rodriguez and Roche continue the momentum; that this isn't a conversation that takes place once a year at the home opener; and that it forces the Indians to finally do the right thing, regardless of public response.
"Do I regret what happened? No," said Rodriguez. "I think it's time this issue does go on top, to decide whether [Chief Wahoo] stays or if it goes."
We couldn't agree more.