(River Smith’s The Long & Painful Death of Chief Wahoo-drum & poetry video with archival footage)

I used to feel like I was born with a baseball in my left hand, a shortstop’s glove on the other. Sudden Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert set my blood rushing. What fun it was to watch Thunder Thornton, Frank Robinson, Bobby Bonds, Charlie Spikes, and Joe Carter. There is no ballet I enjoyed more than Omar going into the hole, leaping, spinning, and releasing; Kenny running, running, propelling himself in the air, cleat on the fence, reaching high as the ball slammed into his glove. Wow.

I love baseball. Love playing it. Love watching it. Oh, I enjoy Lebron, Kyrie and the guys a lot, and can get excited for a moment as a browns runner slides and twists his way through defenders, but I love baseball.

So it’s Springtime in Cleveland again. Time for blooming buds, lakefront picnics, buzzing lawnmowers, dreams of a pennant winning season, and Cleveland’s own special pastime, racism. For over twenty years our video collective has documented the demonstrations outside Fort Progressive (Fort Jacobs) to protest the demeaning Chief Wahoo emblem and the baseball team’s nickname, Indians.

Native Americans from around the country come most years to help educate fans about how the nickname and the wahoo serve to stereotype American tribal peoples; how the use of face paint and feather headdresses mock their religion; how the comments about the warpath and scalping totally misrepresent Native American history and culture. Incidentally, if you do your research you’ll find that probably far more Euro-Americans scalped Indians, than vice versa.

While isolated tribes and occasional individuals have indicated that they don’t mind the usurpation of their native images and words, every major national Native American organization has made it clear that sports team names and emblems are racist and foster unhealthy and misleading stereotypes of their people. After scores of high schools and colleges, and a few professional teams changed their nicknames, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) declared around ten years ago that they will not allow any team nicknames or mascots “hostile and abusive” to Indians to be displayed on team uniforms at any NCAA postseason tournament. American students all over the country and their advisors are getting it. Why can’t we?

How long do you think a team named the Cleveland Jews with a caricatured image for an emblem or the Euclid Negroes with caricatured Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima would last? Somehow we can get that this is not okay when it comes to these groups. If we just open our hearts and widen our understanding a little more, we can see that it’s also not really innocent fun if our behavior causes young Indian girls and boys to have to grow up with distorted images and stereotypes of themselves and their families promoted all around them.

I have loved Cleveland baseball all my life. How does changing the name of the team harm my memories? How does it harm the actual tradition of playing the game? Bob Feller still played for Cleveland. Rocky Colavito still played for Cleveland. Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez still played for Cleveland. Changing the nickname of the team doesn’t change the joy that fans have had watching these extraordinary players. It does, however, reduce the pain and discomfort for thousands of our brothers and sisters. Surely we can delight in a Santana homerun or a diving Brantley catch whether the team is called the Rockers, the Steelmakers, or the Spiders. The cartoonish character on the player’s sleeve doesn’t make the play any more exciting or better.

I want to watch Yan Gomes and Cory Kluber. I want to cheer on Francisco Linder, and Urshela when he gets here, but neither I nor many other fans with conscience will ever feel comfortable paying to attend a Cleveland baseball game as long as it means insulting our Indian brothers and sisters, and their children.

River Smith is co-producer at Liberation Brew TV
and author of A Conspiracy to Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity and Power

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