News » News Features

The Curse of Chief Wahoo

Are we paying the price for embracing America's last acceptable racist symbol?



Page 2 of 5

Pilgrim explains how the exaggerated features serve their discriminatory purpose by emphasizing the differences of the depicted race, thereby reinforcing the idea that the caricaturized race is inferior. He cites a passage from renowned author Julius Lester that gets right to the point, underscoring Wahoo protester Villafane's concern for her grandchildren:

"When I read Little Black Sambo as a child," Lester wrote, "I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he ... [With this image], society had made it clear to me [that the exaggerated features] represented my racial inferiority — the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red protruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures."

Pilgrim has made Chief Wahoo a centerpiece of the Jim Crow Museum's traveling exhibit on racist Native American imagery.

"You don't have to have spent your life analyzing these images to know that it's a harsh caricature," he says. "It either belongs in the garbage can, or some setting where it can be used to make us better — not on a baseball cap. If images don't matter, we should just shut our eyes."


For more than three decades, Bob DiBiasio has faced much of the criticism directed at the Indians over Chief Wahoo. The Tribe's VP of Public Relations sides with the countless fans who equate their mascot with unqualified passion for the game.

"When people look at Chief Wahoo, they think baseball," says DiBiasio. He calls the issue "one of individual perception" and explains that the franchise's "acknowledgment to the sensitivities involved" is evidenced by the fact that it "does not animate nor humanize the logo."

But the questions raised by the organization's stance on the symbol are as glaring as Wahoo's skin tone. If it's a matter of individual perception, why would the perception of those who "think of baseball" when they see the logo matter more than the perception of those who see a demeaning vestige of America's racist past? If the Indians recognize that it would be wrong to animate the logo, why keep it around at all?

The only substantive attempt the team makes to explain why its preferred perception is the correct one refers to the notion that the symbol is intended to honor the legacy of Native Americans.

"[The ballclub's view on Wahoo] is based on ... the historical significance as to how and why the Cleveland baseball team became the Indians," DiBiasio says. "The organization is proud to acknowledge and foster the legacy of Louis Francis Sockalexis, a star performer and first Native American to play professional baseball."

The only problem with the Tribe's singular stance is that it happens to be a load of crap.

When the Cleveland baseball club was renamed the Indians from the Naps in 1915, the Civil Rights Act was still 49 years from reality. Women could not vote, and racism against all minorities raged across America. It hadn't yet been three full decades since Custer's Last Stand, and the bloody Indian Wars continued in the American West into the 1920s.

"Why exactly would people in Cleveland — this in a time when Native Americans were generally viewed as subhuman in America — name their team after a relatively minor and certainly troubled outfielder?" asks Joe Posnanski, an award-winning sportswriter originally from Cleveland, now with USA Today.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.