It’s ONE! TWO! THREE! strikes you’re out at the old ethnic stereotyping game.
Chief Wahoo, the cartoon mascot of the Cleveland Indians, is an abomination. That is the premise of this commentary. If you’re not in accord, you have probably never met the Chief.
Meet the Chief, in all his glory.
A picture’s worth a thousand words — and the words this picture evokes are all ghastly. It’s time to be frank. This is no image of the “noble red man,” to use the quaint if benighted expression, but a lascivious, leering savage who seems as if he would like nothing better than to scalp a few men, ravish a few women, and torch a few homes. The negative qualities conveyed in the image are precisely those that the dominant culture employed to dehumanize Native Americans for centuries. Even the staunchest Cleveland Indians fan must agree, setting aside all other considerations, that the image is a negative one. And yet Chief Wahoo has his defenders. How do they bat away attacks?
First batter: “Tradition.”
Baseball is the game of tradition. The seventh–inning stretch. Hots dogs and soda (wait — is that clam chowder in that sourdough bowl?). Fathers and sons playing catch in the yard. Chief Wahoo is intertwined with the baseball memories of generations of Cleveland fans.
Those memories, and the fond feelings they engender, deserve respect. Memory is at the heart of tradition, for traditions carry memories forward. That means a lot — but it doesn’t mean all. Racial segregation was once a baseball tradition too, and the open use of slurs such as wop, mick, kike, coon, chink, Jap, beaner, and faggot was a long–standing tradition of American life not too long ago. Some traditions are made to discard. Cleveland Indians’ fans, and all sports fans, understand that sports memories lie deep in the heart. But your memories will survive the demise of the chief. And when your team bids adieu to Wahoo, it just may take on some good karma.
Next batter: “You don’t hear white people complaining about the Minnesota Vikings or the Pittsburgh Pirates.”
That’s true — and it’s why I’m always screaming: Norsemen! Norsies! How can you tolerate the perpetuation of the stereotype of the brave, all–conquering Viking hero of the Middle Ages when the stereotype has degraded your people for centuries, mired you in poverty, and excluded you from the American mainstream? Don’t you realize that the scourge of anti–Scandinavianism will never be eradicated if stereotypes like these are allowed to persist! Hey, and you Anglos! How can you, the proud descendants of the swashbuckling English privateers who preyed upon Spanish galleons centuries ago, fail to see that you will never thrive in this nation until you banish all cartoon references to your swaggering ancestors, so celebrated in pop–culture vehicles such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series? Rise up, WASP people, rise up to challenge the perpetuation of cultural stereotypes celebrating the courage, strength, and brio of your triumphant ancestors!
Third batter: “Indians can speak for themselves.”
Yes, many have (see “Native Parents Petition NFL to End use of Racist Slurs & Mascots”). I’m not purporting to speak for them, I’m speaking for myself as a baseball–card–carrying member of the dominant culture who is horrified by the perpetuation of a degrading image of a tiny minority, and ashamed that the dominant culture has not eradicated it.
What right has a white person to speak on the issue? What right did whites have to march on Washington with Martin Luther King, or to board buses with the Freedom Riders? The reality is, Native Americans are few in number and light on clout. Under the circumstances, the majority has not just the right to speak out in solidarity with them, but the duty to do so.
Fourth batter: “Indians don’t mind Indian mascots.”
Huh? Which? Okay, look, I suppose some Indians may feel that way in a general sense — though I sense that more don’t — and that some may accept the plea that certain team mascots were created out of a sense of admiration for Native culture. But Chief Wahoo is not of that kind. That yahoo, Wahoo, is a flaming, blood–thirsty figment of the fevered white–American imagination, and no less odious than the red–lipped, coal–colored Little Black Sambos and mammies of a bygone American era, or the fat, hook–nosed Jews of Nazi propaganda cartoons.
Picture, if you will, an Indian boy seeing Chief Wahoo for the first time. Picture the child seeing his father, his brother, and all the generations of men of his people depicted as leering, radioactive savages. Picture the realization dawning on him that his countrymen approve of that image.
Because we do, evidently.
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Photo: by SarahDeer/Flickr