The Curse of Chief Wahoo

by Cleveland Frowns on June 23, 2008

UPDATE: For a much more comprehensive treatment of the subject, click here.

Whatever else about Chief Wahoo, the face of the Cleveland Indians, it’s amazing that we don’t hear more about a “Curse of Wahoo” in Cleveland, the city suffering the longest and most painful championship drought in major American professional sports. Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of Americans prefer to believe in some metaphysical order, so it’s no surprise that as bad results accumulate, speculation about the metaphysical source of those results — a curse — is soon to follow. So, if the Boston Red Sox had to endure an 86-year curse for trading Babe Ruth, and if the Chicago Cubs have been cursed for the last 63 years simply because they wouldn’t let a guy bring his goat into the stands at Wrigley Field, why don’t we hear more about the Indians, if not all Cleveland franchises, being cursed for what’s so easy to see as an affront to Native Americans and disrespectful of the beginnings of American history?

Most likely because for a great many, if not most, Indians fans, Chief Wahoo represents something entirely different. It’s long past time for us to come to terms with the Chief, and this won’t happen until the activists and others who are so convinced of Wahoo’s evil can understand the good that he represents to so many others.

To understand why Wahoo has survived for so long in this world that long ago turned Bullets into Wizards, and Redskins and Redmen into Red Hawks and a Red Storm, one has to understand that for so many Tribe fans, Wahoo represents the very best of “Take me out to the Ballgame.” In Northeast Ohio, one can live in beautiful country that’s only a short trip away from a relatively big city. It’s no surprise that many choose to do this. And because such a small percentage of Tribe fans live in Cleveland proper, so much of the joy of going to a ballgame is inseparable with the joy of coming to the big city on the big lake. For so many of us, our first trips to the Stadium were our first times in any real city. So many of us can remember the wonder that came with seeing the bridges over the Cuyahoga for the first time, standing in the Flats and looking up at the city on the cliff, or craning our necks to try to see the top of the first skyscrapers that we’d ever seen. Our folks wanted to save on parking, so we walked from the Terminal Tower, the Muni Lot, the Flats, or the workaday lots east of 9th street, and we made the trek through the city to the Stadium together with so many others of all shapes and colors. And we saw, many of us for the first time, that those people were no different from us – at least because we all wanted the home team to win.

And at the end of this fascinating trek, as we crossed Route 2 and approached the magnificent structure on the lake, we saw it; the 35-foot tall neon-lit Chief Wahoo of glass and steel, perched atop the southeast corner of the Stadium roof, eyes gleaming, smile beaming, bat cocked, leg raised, ready to knock the next pitch down to Youngstown. And we didn’t think of Native Americans, or any kind of person at all. So much of the magic of the trip to the ballpark coalesced in that smiling slugging alien angel of joy as we entered the Stadium gates. And then there was the magic of the game itself, with Wahoo smiling in approval all the while — from the stadium roof, our heroes’ uniforms, and seemingly everywhere else. Indians executive Bob DiBiasio touched on this when he told the New York Daily News in March 2007 that, “[w]hen some people look at our logo they see baseball . . . They see Bob Feller and Omar Vizquel and Larry Doby.”

Those who want to bury Wahoo have to acknowledge why he’s lasted so long — that in doing so they would be burying more than a racist caricature; they would be burying a part of our childhood and our culture. They have to acknowledge that the collective attachment to Wahoo has little to nothing to do with an intent to disparage a race of people. So much of the resistance to attempts to get rid of Wahoo is a natural reaction by Tribe fans in response to what they see as an assault on those magical trips to the ballgame. Activists must acknowledge the innocent aspects of our attachment to Wahoo before their appeals to his harmful effect will ever be well-received.

Once Tribe fans believe that our love for Wahoo is understood, we’ll be more apt to ask ourselves why we would want to be attached any longer to a symbol as potentially demeaning to a race of people as Wahoo is.

An honest examination of Wahoo’s origins would be a good place to start. Any such look back puts lie to the company line that the Cleveland baseball franchise was named “Indians” to honor former Cleveland second baseman Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play Major League Baseball. According to an October 2007 story in a Maine newspaper, the Kennebec Journal, for which the reporter interviewed the author of a book on Sockalexis, Sockalexis’ arrival in Cleveland in 1897 “created such a stir that local newspapers jokingly dubbed his team, the Cleveland Spiders, the ‘Cleveland Indians.’” This was not done to honor Sockalexis’ Native American heritage, but rather because, “[r]acism was accepted in journalism in that day . . . Sportswriters would write things like, ‘He’s gonna be scalping people.'” Sockalexis was “burdened by alcohol abuse and racist taunts from opposing players and fans,” and his time with the Indians was short, ending in 1899.

In 1915, two years after Sockalexis’ death, the president of the Cleveland ball club enlisted the help of local sportswriters to rename the team, then called the “Naps” after star Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, who had recently been traded to Oakland. The name “Indians” was chosen by the sportswriters in a decision that can most charitably be described as motivated by sensationalism, if not base hatred. According to research conducted by the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, none of the four daily Cleveland newspapers mentioned Sockalexis in reporting the name change. Three of these four reports (available here) do, however, refer to stereotypes about Native Americans.  A January 17, 1915 report in the Cleveland Leader reported that “[i]n place of the Naps, we’ll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts.”  The Plain Dealer of the same day included a cartoon titled “Ki Yi Waugh Woop! They’re Indians.”  This cartoon (pictured above) depicts, among other things, a frowning umpire scolding a Native American:  “When you talk to me, talk English, you wukoig.” “Wukoig,” according to the Plain Dealer cartoon, is an “Indian” word.

After reading these reports, it’s especially hard to disagree with Kansas City Star sportswriter and Cleveland native Joe Posnanski, who “find[s] that this Sockalexis story might be a bit exaggerated or, more to the point, complete bullcrap.” Posnanski points out that “the story never made much sense to begin with” because it raises the question: “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?” Of course, they didn’t.
But despite the dubious origins of the name “Indians,” at least the name could conceivably honor Native Americans, something that Chief Wahoo could never do. Choctaw Nation member Gavin Clarkson, who teaches Native American Studies at the University of Michigan, points out that Wahoo, like the name “Indians” was intended to do, reinforces the image of Indians as anachronistic savages. Charlene Teters, member of the Spokane Nation and founder of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media told the Plain Dealer in April 2008, that Wahoo is “the most offensive racial icon in the country” and that his existence “really speaks to how invisible native people are in this country.”  With alcoholism, unemployment, and poverty plaguing Native reservations across America, a dopey-grinning, hook-nosed, fire-engine-red-faced caricature that reinforces beliefs that Natives are subhuman is especially harmful. What’s worse, as Esquire Magazine’s Scott Raab has pointed out, is that Wahoo “could be interpreted as mocking the genocide of our nation’s First Peoples.” New York Daily News columnist Filip Bondy puts it more pointedly: “One race can’t commit genocide against another, then turn that race into a mascot. A soccer team in Hamburg would never call itself the Jews and adorn its uniforms with caricatures.”

With Wahoo standing alone as the only racist caricature currently accepted in American society, it’s hard to tell Natives like the ones quoted above to “lighten up.” Yet redface is alive and well here in Cleveland. How else to explain this disparity if Ms. Teters isn’t at least partially right about the invisibility of Natives in America? So why would we want to be a part of reinforcing this invisibility? An insensitivity to these issues that was more understandable in the less integrated society of our parents’ day has to be much less so now. At some point our intention – the innocence behind our attachment to Wahoo — stops mattering.

Which brings us back to the Curse. Native voices have told us loudly and clearly that Wahoo offends; and given his origins and singular status among racial caricatures in America, it’s not at all hard to see how this might be true. If there is at least one Native in this country for whom Wahoo reasonably reinforces a belief that her or his race is invisible or subhuman — thus making it even a little bit harder to engage in life’s everyday struggle — isn’t that enough to bring a curse on our sports teams? It sure seems worse than trading Babe Ruth or banning goats from a ballpark. So why would we even want to take this chance? Haven’t we all had enough of the exquisitely painful losing? There are a lot of Natives buried in these parts. If it’s not the Curse of Chief Wahoo, what else could it be? What else would we want it to be? At least a Curse of Chief Wahoo makes sense. At least it’s a curse that we might do something to end.

So why not hesitate in giving Wahoo a dignified burial? In doing so, we should recognize that while Wahoo might have been born out of something bad, he turned into something very good for many of us. We should acknowledge the complexity of the lives of both persons and personifications. And we should acknowledge progress. There’s certainly no shortage of Northeast Ohio natives who’d be worthy models for a new logo; one that truly honors Native Americans.

 

  • Ben

    avoid post game traffic?

    Did you only attend the last 3 games at the Stadium?

  • smittypop2

    It is asinine to believe in any curse. Do you think Babe Ruth decided the Red Sox didn’t need the curse anymore?? Is that why they won 2 titles in the past 4 years. I think it is called having tons of money and good talent evaluation. In lieu of that, you can have good drafting, personnel and management. The current Indians are not close, but maybe one day they can break through. When they do or don’t it will have nothing to do with some stupid (fake) curse. PS—The Braves have won a world championship and so have the Seminoles. Curse that.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    The Braves and Seminoles don’t have Chief Wahoo. That’s why it’s the Curse of Wahoo and not the Curse of Names or Chants Evoking Native Americans.

    As for Ruth, yeah, curses can wear off. Why not? 86 years seems plenty long. And things didn’t turn out too badly for the big guy anyway.

  • smittypop2

    If curses can wear off than why won’t this one?? The curse is a cop-out and you know it.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Because this one is worse than the other two.

  • Anonymous

    i like the approach, but i still don’t think you are going to get a lot of love. clevelanders feel besieged right now – our economy is in a shambles, we are barely holding onto our homes, politicos tell us that we might not even matter in general elections anymore, etc. and besieged clevelanders are nothing if not defensive. about all things cleveland. we cease to have any sense of perspective, and instead have a fight-or-flight reaction to any perceived attack on our town. i’d say chief wahoo clearly falls into this category. we all love chief wahoo – for the reasons you mentioned. certainly no racism intended. and we still want to love him. the more people tell us we can’t have him anymore, the harder we will fight to keep him. we are very good at fighting for things that have symbolic power and can link us to our glorious (but ever receding) past (this tendency goes way beyond sports – consider our “euclid corridor” proposal which makes no sense at all unless you consider euclid ave’s role in our city’s history).

    your column is well-reasoned. but as i think you realize, which is why you began your article the way you did, the chief wahoo issue isn’t about being reasonable. reason isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. i’m not sure what will – my guess is more time. i know that ever since the old stadium was torn down, and i don’t see chief wahoo greeting me every time that i drive downtown, his power over me is lessened. kids that are not greeted by the chief won’t be nostalgic for him; they won’t be as sad to see him go, and will realize that the wisdom of adopting a new persona far outweighs his symbolic value.

    PS

  • Anonymous

    I think that the article was good. The beginning was very true, but a curse? Come on. Give me a break. Has the curse effected the entire city? Last I checked the Browns have never won a Super Bowl. The Cavs have never won anything. I think the last championship we had was the Force. While I am very supersticious, I don’t believe there is a curse. In fact , I think they should put the original Chief Wahoo on top of Jacob’s Field. Yes, Jacob’s Field. Great article though. I just don’t agree.

    Jared

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Has the curse affected the entire city? You answered your own question.

    “[T]he Browns have never won a Super Bowl. The Cavs have never won anything. I think the last championship we had was the Force.”

    Yup. Looks like the curse has affected the entire city.

  • Kathleen

    Wow, PS or anonymous, well-written and laid-out. I absolutely agree with you.

  • Coachie Ballgames

    Further debunking the myth that the Indians were named for Sockalexis is the fact that he never even played for the Cleveland team that eventually became the Indians. Sockalexis played for Cleveland’s National League team, named the Spiders. This team folded in 1899, two years before the Cleveland American League franchise was founded in 1901.

    There are plenty of downtrodden cities in this country that cling lovingly to their sports teams and are defensive of any attacks on them. Pittsburgh and its Steelers comes to mind. This doesn’t mean that Clevelanders should rally behind an ugly logo.

    My argument against Wahoo has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with aesthetics and design. Wouldn’t Cleveland want to band together behind a team with a nice-looking logo? Can’t we step back and say that it is just an awful drawing and is inconsistent with what we traditionally view as good-looking for baseball? Only three teams don’t use letters on their caps, the Orioles, the Indians and the Blue Jays. The Orioles long ago turned away from their cartoon logo in favor of that stately bird. The Jays, well, their cap logo is awful and difficult to read.

    On pure aesthetic grounds the Indians should either commit to a nicely rendered letter “C” or “I” or a combination of the two. Or, if they would like to keep a graphic image on their caps, go with a stately image of a Native American like the Blackhawks and Redskins do. I think even Natives would agree that the Blackhawks logo is sharp-looking and more importantly-noble.

    • Johnny Roastbeef

      Even further debunking the myth that the Indians were named for Sockalexis as a magnanimous gesture from the adoring Cleveland public is the timing… The most-likely reason the “Naps” became the “Indians” was that the Cleveland front-office wanted to capture the mojo of the previous World Series winners – the 1914 ‘Miracle’ Boston Braves. The Braves as of Memorial Day of ’14 were in last place, but a ‘miraculous’ turnaround vaulted them to the W.S. title. The next spring the world is introduced to the Cleveland “Indians”.

      That’s not a romantic feel-good story though, so a generation later the Sockalexis myth materialized – and the Cleveland Indians themselves, the media and the public still buys it.

  • DJCalev

    I agree with the premise of the essay, but I’m suspicious that your argument will work. Whether we do it b/c of a potential curse (like you argue) or whether we do it b/c it’s the right thing to be done, the truth is, we need to retire the Chief Wahoo logo.

    I actually purchased a vintage 70s style cap (with the crooked “C”) before the season started b/c I knew, in my heart of hearts, and as hard as it was for me to accept, I’d have to ween myself off of the logo. As you mentioned at the beginning of the essay, so many of our memories of the Indians and Cleveland include Chief Wahoo…so it’s going to be a difficult thing to do. I’ve donned the standard home cap from time to time (w/Chief Wahoo prominently displayed), but have worn the new cap more and more recently (especially once I came to terms with the fact that my new cap wasn’t bad luck, the team just isn’t playing well so far this year – although getting healthy would be a nice start).

    Anyway, good essay, and I hope you get a good response from this. I suspect the reaction will be slow and there will be some resistance, but like I said, whether we do it b/c we fear a curse, or we do it b/c it’s the right thing to do, we need to let the Chief Wahoo logo rest in peace.

  • Josh

    At least ‘the curse’ doesnt apply to ‘the bus’!

    O – H

  • Fred Coupon

    http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/blog/big_league_stew/post/Stars-and-Stripes-caps-A-cool-idea-with-poor-ex?urn=mlb,89915

    Some cruel irony with the Indians Stars and Stripes hat. Another instance of MLB shooting itself in the foot.

  • Brian

    Nice article! I’m always encouraging when someone conjures up a new curse.

    I designed a t-shirt that deals wih the Wahoo issue in a different way, take a look:

    Cleveland Caucasians

  • Roland

    curse? what curse? tell me then, how do you explain the greatest movie of 1989: Major League?

  • ILRYN

    So your saying they can or can’t put a casino in Progressive field???

  • Andy the Appalachian

    If someone wanted to name their team the Cleveland “Poor White Guys From Coshocton Ohio”, I’d be honored. Even if they used an exaggerated, smiling version of my face for the logo.

    Nobody talks about how MSU’s Sparty is an anachronistic depiction of people from Sparta. Nobody complains about how not all people who live in the mountains dress like WVU’s mascot. Nobody cries racism because Notre Dame’s mascot is an inaccurate depiction of the Irish… a people who don’t actually fight all the time.

    Furthermore, nobody actually belives that Native Americans look like Chief Wahoo or wear feathers in their hair on a regular basis or smile like that. It’s a cartoon. Get over it.

  • Andy the Appalachian

    Also- when folks take time to step down from their moral high horses, I’d suggest reading this:

    http://www.timesnews.net/article.php?id=9000748

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Andy, you’re missing an important point when you talk about the Spartans, Irish, and Mountaineers. That is that these are all instances of white people making mascots out of white people, and in the case of the Mountaineers and the Irish we’re talking about white people making mascots out of themselves (the idea that Sparty is offensive to Greeks is a joke). None of these are one race, making a caricature of a race that they committed genocide against. The situations are entirely different.

    As for the article you linked to, we have no problem with the team name Indians, and we understand Mr. Vest’s point. Our problem is with the racist caricature logo. Nowhere in the article is there any support indicated for that.

    “It’s a cartoon, get over it.” Would you say the same thing about Sambo? This is no different.

  • 100%

    I was/am very conflicted about this issue, but I can’t disagree with any of the claims or arguments laid out in this petition. I love Chief Wahoo, both as a lifelong Indians fan, and as a designer, but it is indefensible. I don’t ascribe to any notion of a “curse” but if the gods choose to look favorably upon us for doing the right thing in this case, well then all the better.

  • astroboy1070

    Get rid of Chief Wahoo now!!! We all know that eliminating the coolest mascot in baseball will be more than adequate recompense for the genocide perpetrated against native peoples during the period of the nation’s westward expansion. Yeah, that’ll fix things.

  • Anonymous
  • Davie

    Good grief. Why does Uncle Sam have to be an old white guy? Colonel Sanders is probably the most racist of any media icon I’ve ever seen. Hell, even Chick-Fil-A is playing on cows encouraging us to eat mor chikn. Poor chickens…
    If you are offended, DON’T GO TO THE GAMES!
    The United States isn’t here to sanitize the world for what’s offensive to the minority or the majority. I exercise my right to get up and leave when I’m offended. And it is terrible what British, French, and Spanish settlers did to the Native American People. I certainly have forgiven the Catholic Church and the British for the long time persecution of my Scottish ancestors. Those MacDonald’s though…..Glen Coe was yer fault laddies!!! (j/k)

    Aye.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Davie, getting up and leaving does nothing to resolve the embarrassment that comes with the fact that our hometown team uses a symbol that exploits the political powerlessness of Natives in this way. There’s no corrolary. A similar symbol using another race wouldn’t be tolerated anywhere.

  • Louis

    My lord, retire Chief Wahoo because it's incredibly offensive and a horrible reminder of how poorly whites have treated American Indians since they come to this country, not because of a losing streak. Do not make this about a losing streak, I cannot believe you would actually tack that on to the already incredibly valid, empirically supported research that shows how much harm native themed mascots and logos do to the lives and well being of American Indians, as if a losing streak was as important as retiring this prominent racist image. The American Indians are still here, they are a people, with a rich and proud culture and history, you are not in any way honoring them with native themed mascots and logos. African Americans have a rich culture and history, they helped build this nation into what a great country it is today, we don't honor them by having a giant Aunt Jamima instead of a statue of Liberty. We don't honor the Jewish people and all of the hardships they have gone through with naming our sports teams "The Jews." Native themed mascots, logos and imagery should be retired for many reasons, saying that a losing streak is one of them is belittling and degrading the real reasons why they should be retired– they are inappropriate, racist, ignorant, harmful to American Indians self esteem, and absolutely disrespectful of the hardships that they've had to go through as a people, suffering on reservations, suffering many white peoples ignorance, having higher suicide rates, higher rates of alcoholism, lower education and graduation rates, among many other shocking statistics. Just retire them, we are better than this America.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Louis, you make some excellent points, that have been hard for many to acknowledge. Perhaps the losing streak might help remedy that? In any event, I'm afraid you'll have a hard time disproving the seemingly obvious connection here.

  • Robbie

    While I don't believe in the curse, I do believe that this Chief Wahoo mascot needs to be gone, period. It is as offensive as hell and anyone thinking that "native Americans" are just being too sensitive needs to read something like "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown. I used to stake my Chief Wahoo Indians sign in my front yard at the beginning of every season, until I read that book. Now, it's no more.

  • Ryan Carey

    Good post Frownie – I especially liked the picture of the old Wahoo sign at the Stadium. I remember being at the game when the ball (which is missing from your photo) fell off during a game. There was a loud "BOOM" and no one knew what it was til we exited only to see the neon baseball smashed on the ground.

    But – I have to agree – time to put the Chief in mothballs.

  • Usuper70

    -I-O! about time someone responded to Josh.

  • Themotherlode

    I proudly sport a tattoo of Chief Wahoo on my shoulder and don’t give a rat’s ass what you all think of it. So there.

  • Renate Jakupca

    It is Karma that is the bottom of the Curse of Chief Wahoo,
    because the Chief Wahoo Logo attracts bad Karma like a lighting rod.

    You see at the beginning of every baseball season,
    all fans and players all across the nation hope and pray that their team has a winning tyear.

    Towards the end of the regular season some teams hopes and prayers are answered and they advance to the play offs.

    If the Cleveland baseball team is lucky and makes the play offs,
    most fans and players from other teams from all across the nation who did not make the play offs wish the Cleveland team would lose. Some people living on reservations, who don’t know where Cleveland is or have never been to a baseball game in their lives also hope Cleveland will lose. Karma responds and Cleveland loses. This collective National Negative Karma is why Cleveland can’t advance in any play offs – This is the ‘Curse of Chief Wahoo’.

    Why are the other Cleveland pro teams losing? It could be that bad Karma is rubbing off on them, that or just plain bad management.

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