Native Americans speak on imagery at Smithsonian symposium on “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports”

by Cleveland Frowns on February 14, 2013

Paul Lukas of ESPN and Uni Watch posted a column yesterday on Native-American-mascot related events in Washington D.C., where, as Lukas notes, “there’s a growing movement to change the local NFL team’s name from a racial slur [Redskins] to something more palatable.” More specifically:

Several Washington Post columnists have called for a name change; the Washington Redskins blog Hogs Haven also supports the name change; the weekly Washington City Paper has already begun calling the team by a different name; and just last week, Washington mayor Vincent Gray pointedly avoided using the team’s name in his State of the District address.

And the main thrust of Lukas’s column was to cover a symposium held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports,” where, “most of the panelists were American Indians, as were many of the audience members who spoke during discussion segments.”


We’ll get to what some of what was said at this symposium, but first a note to wonder about why there’s not a growing movement in Cleveland regarding Cleveland Indians logo Chief Wahoo that’s comparable to the one in Washington with respect to the Redskins name.

Because unfortunately, the fact that there is no such comparable movement in Cleveland relating to Wahoo is nothing if it’s not significant evidence that that the average Clevelander is a worse person than the average Washingtonian, who supports worse newspapers than the folks in Washington do, and elects worse politicians than the ones in Washington who speak out against the Redskins name. The Plain Dealer hasn’t printed a word against Wahoo in about a decade (can’t rock the boat with the full page ads that the ballclub takes out), and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s chief of staff Ken Silliman, when reached for comment on the issue last spring, could only opaquely refer to an “indirect role” in a “community dialogue” on the issue, the existence of which was flatly denied by the most prominent anti-Wahoo activists upon being informed of Silliman’s comments.

All the more depressing because it’s simply undeniable that Chief Wahoo is a direct descendant of Jim Crow-era imagery, a form that itself came to the U.S. straight out of Hitler’s own cartoon shop at Der Stürmer.

Of course, nobody makes caricatures of other races like Wahoo unless they want to dehumanize that race, and nobody acts to dehumanize a race of people unless they want to treat a race of people as something less than human.

Case in point, per N. Bruce Duthu, a member of the United Houma Nation of Louisiana and chair of the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth, who explained at the Smithsonian symposium, that:

[L]imiting American Indian depictions to warlike caricatures has had ramifications that go beyond cultural stereotypes. “Indian savagery has long been used as an excuse to take away Indian property,” he said. “Actual court cases have stated that Indians couldn’t retain certain lands because they were too uncivilized, too savage, to be entrusted with those lands.” In other words, the whole “battlefield warrior” caricature does more harm than good.

Duthu also explained that:

“It’s part of viewing Indians as a dead culture, as a plaything that’s essentially become part of the public domain. Because if something is dead, you can use it however you want.”

And Kevin Gover, the museum’s director and a Pawnee Indian, notes and asks:

“It’s just like the way Indians have always been depicted in the movies — stupid and violent, although oddly noble in their savagery. Why is it that Native peoples aren’t chosen to represent qualities like intelligence, piety, generosity, and love of family?”

Of course, the fact that Chief Wahoo was created at a time when the majority culture in the U.S. was perfectly comfortable treating an entire race of people as something less than human was just icing on the cake. Ki Yi Waugh Woop!

So a note to folks who, for whatever reasons — including perfectly relatable ones relating to childhood attachments to a symbol that represents the magic of those first trips to the ballpark — obviously haven’t thought this all the way through: White people making an exaggerated caricature of a Native American like Chief Wahoo is actually absolutely nothing like Irish people making a cartoon of a leprechaun, and you just come off like an idiot, a racist, or at best a dim bulb when you try to suggest otherwise.

That Cleveland, Ohio still wears this thing on its baseball uniforms; That you can count on parade of drunk white boys spitting and hollering at (as well as greatly outnumbering) the opening day anti-Wahoo protesters every year like you can count on the earth going around the sun, is as good a modern example as there is of what people are talking about when they talk about the banality of evil.

Please read Lukas’s column because there’s a lot more there, and a lovely Valentine’s Day to everyone. We’ll be back tomorrow with Matt Borcas on the NFL Draft.


The Smithsonian used the excellent cover artwork created by Aaron Sechrist (@okpants) for last April’s Scene story on The Curse of Chief Wahoo in its promotional materials for the event (artwork that would never have been created had Scene’s editor at the time, Erich Burnett, not provided the platform).

  • nj0

    Heh heh. I love that with a renewed excitement for our club, some even clamoring for your take on their recent acquisitions, your response is to ignore all that noise and drop this truth bomb.

    They talk about the Browns, you bring up Mangini. He asks about baseball, you write an article about Chief Wahoo. That’s the Frowns way.

    • Coachie Ballgames

      It goes hand in hand dude

    • Cleveland Frowns

      It sure would be nice to be able to root for the local baseball club without having to completely turn off the most basic ideas about right ways and wrong ways to treat people. But the Dolans just can’t budge on Chief Wahoo. It’s too important to them. Because. Because. Because. Well, they just don’t see a problem with it.

      • nj0

        I dream of a time when I can wear some swag with the local baseball club logo on it without the worry that I’m offending someone just going about their day.

  • Beeej
    • NeedsFoodBadly

      Yeah, that’s pretty good. I can’t stress the implications of number 6 enough – by the time of all but the earliest historical accounts of “first” contact with American Indians, their social structures had been irrevocably altered by catastrophic disease. It’s really hard for people to wrap their minds around it, but imagine a society where most of your political/social standardbearers and knowledge keepers were wiped out a few decades previous, along with the bulk of the population. There are a good number of accounts of pioneers heading west and finding creepy, depopulated ghost villages – because everyone had died of disease. The way that the pioneers recorded contemporary American Indians living was NOT the way they had lived some decades/centuries previous.

      And 5 is also great. Cahokia is FASCINATING.

      • Beeej

        One of my favorite articles. Imagine what America would look like if in a couple of decades we went from a population of 300 million to 3 million people.

    • Nick

      thank you for this article, learned a lot.

    • Cleveland Frowns

      I enjoyed that. Thanks.

  • CleveLandThatILove

    Peter, who created your Frowns logo? It’s perfect.

    • Cleveland Frowns

      Do you remember the original logo? Frownie started out as a cartoon turd in a Browns style toilet.

      I drew it on January 29, 2005 in Microsoft Paint when I was supposed to be doing salt mining school work. The Butch Davis debacle had just ended and I couldn’t believe the Steelers were in the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback. Anyway, I sent it to my sister and seven of my friends and still have the email chain in my inbox. Responses ranged from, “you have way too much time on your hands” to “there’s something sublime about the turd’s face like mona lisa’s smile.”

      The toilet went 3D for awhile, then my friend Brian McAllester, who is obviously a genius, put the face on the football and helped me design the current banner.

      • CleveLandThatILove

        Yet another talent, where does it end? I should have known.
        I never saw the original – it’s kind of like a Frownie baby picture.

  • The Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuugs

    Especially with all the national attention being paid to our beloved ball team these days, it sure would be a great forum for announcing a reduction / obliteration of the Chief Wahoo logo.

    We don’t need to go so far as to change the name “Indians” just yet, although I would strongly support a new name, and think a completely clean break would go a long way towards rectifying the mistakes of the past. But the fact of the matter is that Chief Wahoo needs to go now. An entire symposium should not have to be directed at why Native American mascots are demeaning and not as “honorable” as the owners/fans purport them to be.

  • bupalos

    I won’t weigh in on whether Clevelanders are on the whole dumber or more mendacious than Washintonians, but I do think there is at least some difference between the two abominations; “Redskins” is something so pure and simple, there are no angles to hide behind or ways to make up lies about it. It’s a word without ambiguity, and frankly about as close to the N-word as you can get. “Wahoo” is much more complex. It lends itself to the same kind of treatment as Sambo, which was in fact re-released to a majority of critical acclaim in 2003 under the original title but with a tacked on introduction explaining how it wasn’t meant to be racist because Sambo is a hero, outwits the tigers, etc. etc. A lot of otherwise intelligent people can and will accept this kind of thing, some even with the conscious understanding that this is revisionist and abstracts from the actual social history of the work. Some will actively use the term “reclaiming.” If Kirkus Review can go for this parallel Sockalexis treatment, I’m not sure one would expect fans of a sports team born and bred to it, for most of whom it was and is nothing but a symbol of baseball, to do much better.

    Again from my point of view, the more you publicize the reality of Wahoo the better, it’s an inherently offensive symbol that needs to go yesterday. Just not sure calling people stupid ever helps them learn.

    • nj0

      Intellectualizing racism. Nice. Not exactly the same thing, but reminds me of the whole concept of hipster racism which allows you to be racist as long as it’s ironic or cool.

      Which reminds me of this Lester Bangs piece about racism in the punk scene back in late 70’s NYC.

    • nj0

      Well, dumber doesn’t equal stupid. Also, if you’re using level of educational attainment as an indicator of intelligence, DC crushes pretty much every state.

    • Cleveland Frowns

      1) “Just not sure calling people stupid ever helps them learn.”

      I can only go from my own experience, which is that some of the most useful moments I’ve had on planet earth have been when someone with a better perspective than I on a given issue took me aside and made an effort to explain to me why something I was doing or some idea I had stuck in my head was stupid or bad or wrong. I’m sure “learning” is exactly what happened in these moments, and I’m not sure it happens in many other ways with respect to an issue like this.

      Anyway, this post isn’t so much aimed at the dim bulbs as it is at the folks who are keeping them that way.

      2) Once again, Wahoo is and always will be worse than “Redskins”:

      Smithsonian Institution senior linguist Ives Goddard spent seven months researching its history and concluded that “redskin” was first used by Native Americans in the 18th century to distinguish themselves from the white “other” encroaching on their lands and culture.

      Goddard cites numerous historical examples of Natives using the terms “red skin” and “white skin” in this way to back up his claim that “[the term] came [about] in the most respectful context and at the highest level.” For example:

      [A] news story in the Missouri Gazette on talks between Midwestern Indian tribes and envoys sent by President James Madison to negotiate treaties after the War of 1812 [quotes] Meskwaki chief Black Thunder [as] unimpressed [with the envoys’ entreaties]: ‘Restrain your feelings and hear calmly what I say,’ he told the envoys. ‘I have never injured you, and innocence can feel no fear. I turn to all red skins and white skins, and challenge an accusation against me.’

      Whatever that’s worth, there’s no justification for Wahoo that’s in the same ballpark. It’s completely inconceivable that Native Americans would ever or would have ever used anything like Wahoo to describe or depict themselves. That makes it worse by definition.

      • bupalos

        Just as I’m not making any claim as to whether clevelanders are stupider, I’m also not making one as to whether wahoo or redskin is better or worse. I’m saying redskin is simpler, a more direct reference to racial otherness, and whatever its linguistic origin, will naturally strike modern ears as inappropriate. And that, not higher intelligence, is the reason some washingtonians are abandoning it. Your linguistic defense of the Redskins as just worlds better strikes me as wrongheaded. It really doesn’t matter if the oppressed group also used, or even invented, the term. It becomes demeaning when used as a term of objectification by the dominant group. It would be no different if they were called the Washington Jews or blacks instead of redskins, and depicted with moneybags or stacking cotton instead of in warrior headdress. I find the warrior objectification no less troublesome than the hooknosed grinning dopey one. They’re just different. The former is a lot closer to the serious justifications that were actually used for the genocide, the later a mocking dismissal of a conquered people.

        I suppose dunce caps may have some pedagogic value, I just think that’s a mixed bag at best.

        • Cleveland Frowns

          I’m not saying Redskins is “worlds better,” just significantly more excusable by any comprehensive analysis. I guess I can see where you’re coming from about modern ears, but but that just makes me wonder what the problem is with modern eyes.

          Anyway, if you want to make a point that’s different from stating that telling folks they’re wrong about something is the equivalent of a “dunce cap,” I’m all modern ears.

          • bupalos

            Calling this supposed difference between the logos evidence that the average clevelander is a worse person than the average Washingtonian answers to the description of a metaphorical dunce cap much better than “telling them they’re wrong.”

          • Cleveland Frowns

            Not when supported by facts as here. “Significant evidence that” is actually a restrained statement of the truth. We can agree to disagree.

          • Cleveland Frowns

            Not to say that I don’t very much appreciate your attempt to defend the locals by way of a relativistic defense of Wahoo (that’s what this place is for), but the anti-Redskins statements by Washington politicians and journalists are simply some evidence of a more civilized place.

          • bupalos

            And where, prey tell, do I defend Wahoo in any way, relativistic or not? You’re the one getting into comparatives, supposing there is some moral better and worse here, and generalizing about the “averages” among local populations. Both symbols are egregiously wrong. One of the organizations has chosen to spread apparently believable revisionists fabrications to try and whitewash it’s symbol and change it’s meaning; The other has just said “hey, tradition, honor, warrior, get over it.” For me, the different approach as well as the starkness of the word “redskin” is what explains the (smallish) difference in reaction among the two cities. As I said before, if Kirkus Review can make a similarly re-released “Little Black Sambo” a book of the year (I think you’d be struck how much the intro to this edition sounds like the Indian brass), I’ll forgive the relative sins of Cleveland v. Washington.

            But if you think the explanation is that people here are just by-and-large worse human beings, then OK, we’ll agree to disagree.

  • GrandRapidsRustlers

    Agree with everything here except two things.

    One. We live in Cleveland and they live in Washington. By default we are already smarter than they are.

    Two. We will be long rid of Wahoo before they ever do anything about the Redskins in DC…we also at one time had a team in Ohio named the Redskins but we already fixed that. In 1997.

    Ohio > DC

    • nj0

      Not to pick on you specifically GRR, but…

      I’m one of the biggest supporters/defenders of the Dolans and usually find myself first in line to support the way they operate their business both on and off the field. But even I am HIGHLY skeptical of this blind faith that they will eventually do something to rid us of Wahoo.

      It’s something I hear and see time and again. “Once the situation is right, Wahoo is gone.” Or, “You can see how they’re slowly phasing it out.”

      These claims are usually backed-up by evidence like some minor uniform change (hint: a new block C cap is just more merch to sell people) or some prudent business decision made by the MBAs (because no Wahoo at Goodyear which is in the state with the third highest Native American population is just good dollars and sense). Yet Wahoo is still on the uniform, on the website, on the stadium, on the merch, on everything of any consequence….

      Some claim that it’s just a matter of timing which I also don’t buy. We were one game away from the WS and the goodwill that engendered wasn’t used to kill Wahoo. We have also seen times of a near complete lack of fan support.

      If neither of those two environments were right to get it done, what conditions are?

      Truth is, they could have gotten rid of Wahoo yesterday and didn’t. They could get rid of Wahoo tomorrow and won’t.

      • bupalos

        To my mind, if you’re actively trotting out the “tribute to Sockalexis” angle, you aren’t necessarily planning to do anything but proceed as usual. That is an active attempt to bolster the logo. I find it totally incompatible with a phase-out.

      • GrandRapidsRustlers

        I can’t argue with anything you said because it is factual.

        The problem is that it is also factual that every year that passes less of it is seen. Be it the uniforms, the stadium, the MLB web sites.

        I think the biggest issue is that Dolan does not have the stones to make an announcement that it will go away. I seriously believe that one winter we will see a new set of uniforms and it will just be gone…

        Maybe wishful thinking on my part. I just think they are trying to find a way to get rid of it without anyone noticing (impossible)

        The hardest part of this is that not only is there no real reason for Wahoo but the amount of money that Dolan is passing up with a new logo or team name has to be staggering.

        • nj0

          Not to get all empirical on you, but I just don’t know if I buy that we see less and less of Wahoo year after year.

          I’d agree that there is more diversity in the iconography the team uses (the italicized “I”, the block “C”, script “Indians”), but I see that as a marketing thing more than anything else. And yeah, there is probably less Wahoo than there was ten years ago, but year after year? Will they ever completely get rid of him? I’ll believe it when I see it. Call me a pessimist.

        • Tom_RedRight88

          Chief Wahoo probably won’t go away until one (or both) of two things happen: either the Dolans sell the team and a new owner takes the opportunity to change the logo; or when Bud Selig retires the new commissioner takes it upon himself to force the team to get rid of the logo.

          Both seem unlikely, however, especially as Majestic has released a throwback line of T-shirts and sweatshirts for the upcoming season ( and the Tribe’s T-shirt is this: ( which obviously has the approval of the Indians and Major League Baseball. (h/t to Uni Watch)

          • GrandRapidsRustlers

            The infuraiting thing (besides the obvious) to me about those shirts is that they ignore the actual history.

            If it says Cleveland and the year 1901 it needs to say Bluebirds or Blues. This is the actual history.

          • jimkanicki

            holy crap i never knew the indians started as the grand rapids rustlers.


          • nj0

            Toss “throwback” into a description and it excuses the racism.

  • Chuck Booms’ Inner Monologue

    Oh, here come the PC Police! Frankly I can’t see how you could worry about the Native Americans, when the plight of the white man is much more severe. I mean really, look at how awful it has been for those white men, suffering so. THE HUMANITY!

  • Chris Mc

    Your argument is invalid because MARK PRICE BAR!

    • Chris Mc

      Saw it on Deadspin and had to share.

    • Cleveland Frowns


      “The Boston Herald reported the following hearsay upon the Mark Price Bar’s launch.

      “During the [press conference], Price was photographed eating one of the bars, smiling as he did — a 3-point shot of delight.

      “The next day, however, his demeanor changed. Though no medical cause and effect has been confirmed, it must be reported that Price missed practice because of a stomach virus.”

  • MichaelTheRed

    does anyone relate to Wahoo at all anymore? Even if the Native americans didn’t care about it, it’s still a terrible mascot. Nobody should be offended by the name of the team, there’s nothing offensive about the word “indian”. There’s not even context where it could be construed as offensive because that’s the name of the team you’re hoping does well if you’re a fan.

  • Tron

    Thanks for this article man. We need more of this. It’s really easy to say “who cares its not a big deal” but it is. Its disgusting. I think the comparison with the German propaganda against Jews is perfect because it’s the exact same thing, maybe even worse considering it is still tolerated and considering the state of Native Americans lives today. The sad part is I love the Tribe but hate that logo.

  • nj0

    Nazis, genocide, Cleveland sports….

    …but we won this one

  • Bluejacket

    The term redskin began back in the 16th c. to describe the appearance of the Beothuk people living on Newfoundland. They would cover themselves with a reddish ocher found on some small islands off the island’s coast. (I’ve been to these ocher pits). They died out through the usual depredations of small pox, warfare, slavery, etc., but the term spread. The term took on more significance when the British Army began paying a bounty for “redskins” –– otherwise known as scalps, ears, etc.,

  • GodHatesCleveSports

    Removing Chief Wahoo is not just removing Chief Wahoo. It means the name Indians is open for removal. So removal of Wahoo = removal of Indians name. That’s why the Dolans are so against it.

Previous post:

Next post: