Chief Wahoo, a Purple Bobble-Headed Jesus

When I was a freshman in high school, my assigned senior mentor was Rick, one of the more popular students, and when we met, somehow he heard me say my name is Mark and not Mike.  Even when I finally got up the guts to tell him he was mistaken, he ignored me and kept calling me Mark.  Because of his mistake, I became Mark to him and his friends and it bothered me every time they called me that because it wasn’t my name.

I’m guessing that’s just a fraction of what it feels like every time we call a Native American an ‘Indian’.

American History 101 Fact: Columbus just plain got it wrong when he showed up here – he thought he was in the Indies (Asia).  He did to those natives what Rick the popular senior did to me and instead of saying, ‘My bad, who you?’ he just went with his Indies mix-up and called the locals ‘indios’ or Indians.

And here’s where this affects me, a white guy.

Every October I think of Rick’s mistake because I’m a lifelong Cleveland Indian’s fan and it kills me to call the team that or wear their insulting logo.  Traditionalists will argue that they named them the Indians as a tribute to the only Native American ball player of that era, Louis Sockalexis.  Given the discriminatory treatment he and his people received back then, plus the fact that he was never even mentioned in the article announcing the team name change (but a bunch of ‘injun’ jokes were, apparently), I’m guessing this is just a lie we tell ourselves to justify the regretful choice.

I read in Wiki that the Cleveland logo Chief Wahoo, called the ‘red sambo’ by some, is actually part of an exhibit at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia maintained by Ferris State University in Michigan.  According to the article, Dr. David Pilgrim, a sociology professor and an expert in racial imagery, says the symbol of Wahoo hardly differs from the caricatures of blacks popular in the Jim Crow era in which Wahoo was created, ‘when such depictions of minority races were popularly used to inflame prejudice and justify discriminatory laws and behavior’.

It gets worse.

Chief Wahoo wears a feather, and, according to Bob Roche, director of the American Indian Education Center, “this red feather…is a part of a ceremonial feather that is given to our warriors that have shed their own blood in battle… It’s very spiritual…so it’s a mockery of our own religion, our own spirituality.”

That would be like if every time Rick the senior saw me in the hallway, not only did he call me Mark, but he also held up a crucifix with a purple, bobble-headed Jesus on it.

“Hey Mark, why so offended?” he’d ask.  “It’s just a tribute.”

Yet we plaster smiley red Chief Wahoo and his spirit feather all over our caps and jerseys and team websites, and some of us fans even dress up like him, red-face and all.  If you’re a Native American, it’s blatantly offensive, and that’s kinda not the point of baseball.

So how do teams like the Indians and the Redskins recover from the regrettable ‘whoopsie’ that allowed their teams to be so offensively named?

It’s an easy answer – rename the teams.

But as soon as you try to litigate that, the slippery slope really gets oiled up.  If we force one or two teams to change, then the call to change all the other names deemed offensive to some group or another will get louder and more insane (i.e. change the Brewers, it’s offensive to teetotalers, or the Steelers, it’s offensive to thieves who misspell).

If the principal would have tried to force Rick the senior to stop calling me Mark, I’m not sure it would have solved my problem.  It would have made ME look bad and pissed off Rick.

No, if there’s a change, it has to be from the team owners and fans.   We have to begin to see Chief Wahoo as a purple, bobble-headed Jesus and stop wearing it.  Don’t give it away – burn it, shred it, use it to polish your baubles, just stop wearing it as if it’s not offensive.

And if we really want to pay tribute to Louis Sockalexis, the owners could decide on their own to change the name of the team to the Louis Socks and have a city-wide celebration to honor he and his people.   In a few years we’ll get used to that name, and then watch how the name ‘Indians’ or the image of Chief Wahoo sticks out as completely racist, like the Swastika or the Confederate flag does to most of us now.

When I saw Rick at a local bar years later, he actually blanked on my name.   When I told him it was Mike he said, “That’s right, now I remember,” as if he’d called me that all along.  Then we watched some of the game and drank a beer together, because that’s kinda the point of baseball.

  • Mike Lukas


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