What Can the Washington Redskins Debate Teach Us About Wahoo?




If you've got a friend on Facebook vaguely interested in (or, on an off chance, authentically plugged into) Native American culture, you may know that there's an important vote happening in South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation today. If you're not, about the only "Native American" news you've likely heard lately has been this brouhaha about the Washington Redskins' football franchise, and owner Dan Snyder's tycoonish intractability regarding the name.

"We'll never change the name," he told USA Today. "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."

The issue has spawned a great deal of controversy and conversation about racist symbols in sports. The online magazine Slate has even renounced the use of "Redskins" to refer to Washington's NFL team.

And it's only natural that in the wake or crest of these conversations, those of us in Cleveland are getting increasingly uncomfortable. To be clear: Chief Wahoo is much, much worse.

Here's Peter Keating in the August 19 edition of ESPN Magazine, addressing those who defend the Redskins' name by saying it's not racist: "Of course 'Redskin' is racist .... Your real argument is that your enjoyment of the team's name, and your connection to its folklore, is more important than its genocidal history."

That's a nice synthesis of a Peter Pattakos argument in his Scene feature story from 2012, "The Curse of Chief Wahoo."

"To many if not most Clevelanders," wrote Pattakos, "Chief Wahoo has never represented a race of people at all, but a benevolent symbol of the magic of those first trips to the ballpark: a smiling, slugging alien angel of joy."

Regardless of our emotional connection, though, Wahoo remains "the only professional sports logo in the western world to caricaturize a race of people," wrote Pattakos.

So what's the major difference between the Redskins' debate and the Wahoo debate?

Bluntly, there's zero legitimate debate as far as Chief Wahoo is concerned. Zero. It's an aggressively racist symbol, and it's mortifying if you take thirty seconds to look at the image, or think about it in a human context, or any context other than, you know, a "logo."

The arguments for keeping "redskins" as a mascot, if not necessarily persuasive, at the very least exist. David Plotz, editor of Slate, in his post earlier this week, suggested that the name actually might not be as historically pejorative at it has been characterized.

The word redskin has a relatively innocent history. As Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard has shown, European settlers in the 18th century seem to have adopted the term from Native Americans, who used “red skin” to describe themselves, and it was generally a descriptor, not an insult. Over time, it became a more ambiguous, and less benign term, sometimes used as a slur. When Washington owner George Preston Marshall—who was admittedly a racist, refusing to integrate his team until 1962—chose the name in the 1930s, he was almost certainly trying to invoke Indian bravery and toughness, not to impugn Indians.

Obviously. I mean it wouldn't make sense to invoke something perceived as inferior. That's just totally not in the spirit of athletic competition. Ultimately, though, as Plotz says:

Changing the way we talk is not political correctness run amok. It reflects an admirable willingness to acknowledge others who were once barely visible to the dominant culture, and to recognize that something that may seem innocent to you may be painful to others.

And Chief Wahoo? It's just about as bad as it gets. Even Major League Baseball seems to be quietly, if unofficially, phasing it out. A Change.org petition is available to sign here. Petition creator Sam Kay has the right attitude about retiring the Chief.

This isn't about judging or scolding our fellow fans. (Most of us have worn "Chief Wahoo" before, perhaps very recently.) This isn't about taking the fun out of the game. This is just an opportunity to get people to think twice about something that many of us have taken for granted for too long.

Tweet @Indians with #LittleRedSambo #RetireWahoo.

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