For a Cleveland sports fan, after last night’s gut-churning, bowel-loosening, heart-breaking, 10-inning Game 7 World Series loss to the Chicago Cubs, there’s no better time to broach this subject, right?
Let me begin by saying that my Northeastern Ohio bona fides are unimpeachable. I cried actual tears when LeBron James and the Cavaliers won the NBA championship. I drove eleven hours to Cleveland for the victory parade, and likely, perhaps pathetically, I’ll remember that Game 7 win as one of the best moments of my life. The Indians World Series run was incredible, and when Rajai Davis hit his two-shot homerun to tie the game, I was sure the Indians would pull it out. But hey, Cleveland teams played in two of the greatest Game 7s in the history of two respective sports and won one of them. After the last out, I thought of watching an Indians-Blue Jays game this summer with my friends where I remembered why these were some of my favorite people in the world and why the city of Cleveland was secretly one of the best in the country.
But it’s got to be said: you know what is more embarrassing than blowing a 3-1 lead in the World Series? It was watching, each and every game, the garish, inexcusable Chief Wahoo, somehow, still, in 2016, emblazoned on the sleeves and hats of Cleveland’s players. I cannot believe that this (to say nothing of the Washington Redskins, the Tomahawk chop, or a range of tribal names appropriated for pro and college sports) persists.
Among my friends from Ohio, in a generation that grew up with slightly more awareness of the vile implications of racist imagery, I know I’m not alone. As one of those friends, the comedian Sumukh Torgalkar (“the type of Indian Christopher Columbus thought he saw when he came here”) put it in a post on his blog, “I was born in Cleveland. I grew up to like baseball. So did my brother. So did my Dad as an immigrant to this country who raised both of us. This is why we are fans of the Cleveland Indians… Sports fandom comes from a place having nothing to do with logos and names.”
I’m on board with all the standard arguments: Few would defend a mascot with a grinning, skin-exaggerated caricature of Asians, Jews, or African-Americans. This is the one racial or ethnic minority that billionaire owners and fans seem comfortable rendering in this grotesque way.
It’s important to stress that the desire to jettison Chief Wahoo is not simply the latest overreaction of “PC culture.” After teaching at a university for three years, I’m firmly in the camp who believes the trigger-warning/ safe-space phenomenon is a troubling overreaction to real problems of racism and misogyny—an overreaction that will ultimately make it harder to combat those evils by foreclosing dialogue and creating a culture of epistemic closure and academic show trials.
But just because the principle of egalitarianism has created some bizarre excesses does not forgive the phenomenon of Native American mascots. I was 10 years old in 1995 when the Indians lost to the Braves in the World Series, and one of my most vivid memories of the hype surrounding that matchup was watching as fans of both teams mocked those who had arrived to protest this double-dip of mascot condescension. It troubled me enough that I’ve never actually been able to own a piece of Indians gear even as I’ve continued to root for their success these past twenty years.
However, I truly believe this is less a question of poor taste than it is about the processes of collective memory.
After all, in the story of European conquest and subjugation of Native peoples, Ohio has a singular role. Its formation as a state is mostly owed to a legacy of violence against tribes like the Miami, Wyandot, Seneca, Delaware, Ottawa, Shawnee, and others.
Take for example, the Long Knives, British colonists creeping from Virginia, then Kentucky, into the Ohio Valley, so named for their penchant of butchering basically any human being they encountered of non-Anglo descent. They hunted the native tribes in an undeclared race war, and while atrocities occurred on both sides of this conflict, the process was akin to a slow-rolling invasion. This created the scene for a barbaric and mostly forgotten war that would play out alongside the creation of the new American state (for more on this and all of the following stories, I highly recommend Andrew Cayton’s Ohio: History of a People).
This war was marked with incidents like the 1782 massacre at Gnadenhutten in what is now Tuscarawas County, about an hour from where I grew up. An American militia, after coming across a Moravian mission, decided to murder nearly a hundred Delaware, mostly women and children, by crushing their skulls, one by one, with a common cooper’s mallet.
While high school textbooks have plenty to say about the Revolutionary War, about the heroes who instituted a new form of government and a constitution with a Bill of Rights, they have less to say about the B-side of that conflict on the Ohio frontier. After the Revolutionary War ended, the new nation, saddled with debts and hungry veterans, began paying these men with tracts of Ohio land. The policy sent hordes of white immigrants into areas already occupied by those native tribes.
President George Washington chose Arthur St. Clair to settle the matter, and St. Clair led his army into a disaster on Ohio’s western border. He lost, according to most estimates, 623 men to a confederacy of tribes led by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. This was the worst defeat the United States Army would suffer against any Indian resistance and a worse loss of life than any battle of the Revolutionary War.
Our engagement with history trains our eye on what is essentially a fairy tale of democratic triumphalism, purposefully ignoring, reducing, or downplaying the other side of the coin: the militarism, theft, and barbarity that would win the nascent United States a stretch of country rich in timber, rubber, iron ore, coal, and most importantly oil. Cleveland would rise to become one of the world’s key industrial cities largely because it headquartered Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Before all that, however, the Erie, the Seneca, the Delaware, and the rest had to be removed.
Following St. Clair’s embarrassing and bloody defeat, Washington sent General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to the Ohio wilderness where in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Wayne’s army destroyed the last of the Indian resistance and forced them to trade away their homes for a pittance.
At the time, Little Turtle put it this way: “The trail has been long and bloody. It has no end. The pale faces come from where the sun rises, and they are many. They are like the leaves of the trees. When the frost comes they fall and are blown away. But when the sunshine comes again they come back more plentiful than ever before.”
Little Turtle proved more than prescient. From Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to Sitting Bull’s insurgency on the Great Plains to Kintpuash and the Modoc’s last stand in the lava beds of southern Oregon, a campaign of exploitation and extermination by the U.S. government would follow. As Timothy Snyder has demonstrated in his books Black Earth and Bloodlands, Adolph Hitler used the American example, as well as British colonialism, to justify his own expansionist, racialist policy—the German version of Manifest Destiny known as Lebensraum.
So what the hell does any of that have to do with Chief Wahoo?
Even as the Cleveland Indians lost one of the most suspenseful, breathtaking World Series in recent history, over a hundred tribes (as well as movements as disparate as 350.org and Black Lives Matter) remain gathered on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation on the border between the Dakotas to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
It’s a story as old as the “treaties” the American government offered following the Battle of Fallen Timbers: the pipeline, intended to carry oil shale from the Bakken formation (so Rockefeller’s corporate descendants can keep the planet’s destabilizing climate chugging along its Hell-ward course) was originally supposed to pass through Bismark, the capital of North Dakota. However, authorities feared the very real threat of leaks or spills contaminating the city’s drinking water, so the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, decided to move it just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation on land taken away from the tribe in 1958. Now the confrontation has become a fearsome display of civil disobedience. Thousands of protestors have occupied the path of the pipeline, disrupting its construction with their bodies, tents, and lawsuits. Hundreds have been arrested, and a private security company hired by ETP has attacked protestors with dogs and pepper spray. It is a vivid illustration of how the exploitation of Native peoples and the state-sanctioned violence committed against them is not even close to being a thing of the past.
No, removing Chief Wahoo won’t stop an oil pipeline or lower the harrowing Native American suicide rate or improve education levels on reservations or raise anyone at all out of poverty born of historical dispossession, but the Cleveland Indians’ mascot is one small, easily dispatched piece of propaganda that contributes to our society-wide disregard for a group of our fellow citizens.
If this election season has taught us anything it’s that these small drips and drabs of intolerance, disrespect, demonization, and dehumanization are like cracks in a dam, and once too many cracks begin to appear they become more than just accumulated internet vitriol. This bile reconstitutes as policy proposals to deport people of Hispanic origin or ban those who practice a certain religion or inflict “law and order” policing on the inner cities. Worse, all of this Trumpian intolerance emboldens those with even darker notions.
The point being, the effect these mascots and logos produce does not damage Native Americans alone. By donning these symbols, all of us, regardless of our heritage, become a people estranged from our own past, complicit in the effacement of history, of memory, and all the contradictions inherent in being American—or for that matter an Ohioan. By accepting these seemingly trivial matters, we learn to un-know who we are.