About 45 minutes before the first pitch of the Cleveland Indians’ home opener on Friday against the Minnesota Twins, I took the below photo just outside of Gate C at Progressive Field, where a protest against the Cleveland team’s name and Chief Wahoo logo was being held by a group organized by the local chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
Pictured at left is Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache tribe member, AIM member, Executive Director of the American Indian Education Center in Parma, Ohio, and more. At right is Cleveland Indians baseball fan Pedro Rodriguez, who is not a Native American.
Shortly after snapping the photo I posted it to the Cleveland Frowns Twitter account from where it was quickly picked up by a number of national outlets, including Deadspin, Fox Sports, NBC Sports, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and Yahoo. Scene’s Sam Allard, who also witnessed this confrontation, posted some pictures of his own along with a first-person account and roundup of responses to the anti-Wahoo protesters. And the photo has been discussed at length on local sports talk radio programs, including yesterday on ESPN Cleveland 850 AM where Rodriguez was interviewed by Aaron Goldhammer and explained (or at least gave the impression) that he believed he was “set up” for the photo.
Here’s what really happened:
I was on the scene yesterday with filmmaker Brian Spaeth and a small production crew to capture some Opening Day footage for a documentary about Chief Wahoo and the “Indians” name. We were about to wrap up for the day because we were afraid that the continuing rain would damage our equipment, but then we saw Rodriguez in the Eagle Avenue alley behind the outfield wall and of course had to ask him if he would speak about his costume on camera.
He agreed, and the two of us had a brief conversation in which Rodriguez communicated a lack of empathy for the perspective of the Native American protesters who find Wahoo and the “Indians” name to be dehumanizing and an illegitimate appropriation of their culture. I then asked him if he would say the same things he was saying to me to an actual Native American. He replied that he would (it would have been hard for him to have said no at that point), so I offered to introduce him to the AIM protesters, who were about 20 yards away.
He agreed to meet them, walked over with me, and was immediately confronted by Roche who explained in no uncertain terms that he did not feel “honored” by Rodriguez’s costume. A heated discussion ensued, during which Rodriguez hit on many of the common pro-Wahoo talking points, including Bob Dibiasio’s favorite, “it’s about baseball.”
At one point during the conversation I showed Rodriguez a copy of Aaron Sechrist’s artwork from the 2012 Scene cover story on the logo depicting a Chief Wahoo bobblehead next to a blackfaced lawn jockey drawn in the same style. I asked him if he’d ever show up at a baseball game in blackface, to which he replied that he wouldn’t. I then asked him why redface was any more excusable and he struggled to come up with an answer. As Allard notes in his piece, Rodriguez could only repeat that “he was an Indians fan.”
To Rodriguez’s credit, he was much more respectful to the protesters’ point of view than a great number of his fellow Wahoo fans even despite his outrageous costume, and seemed to actually be considering the arguments that were presented to him. Also, he appeared to be perfectly sober, contrary to what some of the media reports have suggested. I heard that he told Goldhammer on the air that he wants to meet me for a beer. Maybe this happens and we can continue the conversation. Hopefully the viral reaction to the photos of the Roche/Rodriguez encounter means that we’re getting close to a time where redface is recognized as just as unacceptable as blackface, even in Cleveland.
“[K]eeping Wahoo on the active roster gives license and encouragement to this type of behavior. Like, if the Chief is an official team logo, why shouldn’t fans be painting their face with his likeness? That’s what fans do, right? As long as the Indians keep Wahoo around, they can’t credibly disavow this kind of stuff.”
“I think the most interesting thing about it is that the fan does not, based on Peter’s description, seem to be motivated by racism. Which I think is the case with most people who are cool with Wahoo. It’s not about racism for them. It’s that they never put two-and-two together and appreciate that it actually bugs people. When they are forced to — as this fan was here — it’s amazing how soon they become reasonable about the matter. Or at least appear to on the surface.
“That’s the thing about Wahoo that those who defend him don’t usually get: no one is saying people who wear it are inherently and necessarily racist. It’s that they’re insensitive and oblivious to the fact that the caricature itself is a clearly racist symbol.”
For a lot more on the profound disgrace that’s Cleveland’s redfaced Major League Baseball logo, see the Cleveland Frowns “Curse of Wahoo” archive here.