In this past week, the Cleveland Indians officially announced that the iconic and controversial “Chief Wahoo” logo will be phased out of the teams visual identity entirely by the year 2019. This decision, that is being enforced by the current commissioner of the MLB, Rob Manfred, is the final blow in a long battle that was put into motion in 2014 when Chief Wahoo was removed as the primary logo of the Cleveland Indians. Despite this, the Indians were reluctant to remove all traces of Wahoo from their identity as the Chief still was used as an alternate logo and appeared on the Indians uniforms and around the stadium.
The movement to remove offensive and derogatory Native American imagery from sports began to pick up steam towards the end of the 20th Century. One of the first dominoes to fall was the Atlanta Braves, who removed their longtime logo depicting a Native American man screaming in 1990. The new identity is centered around the Braves name and a tomahawk. Most instances in professional sports involve the team simply altering their logo to something less offensive; this, however, is often not the case for collegiate teams. Schools such as North Dakota, Syracuse, and Arkansas State were forced to change their identities entirely amidst public pressure.
Back to Cleveland, multiple professional franchises such as the Atlanta Braves have proven that it is possible to have an identity that gives tribute to Native Americans without portraying them in a degrading manner. The main problem with the Chief Wahoo logo is that it has been used by the Indians in some capacity since 1946. Chief Wahoo depicts a Native American male in an extremely cartoonish fashion to say the least. Chief Wahoo has bright red skin, wide triangular eyes, a large nose, a very large big-toothed smile, very prominent dimples and slicked back blue hair held together by a feather.
These features of Chief Wahoo play on extreme stereotypes about Native Americans and their features such as having red skin and wearing feathers. There is also the fact that the term Indian is based on Christopher Columbus falsely assuming that he was in India based on the notion that the world was flat. Many of the caricaturistic features of Chief Wahoo alongside the racial overtones and overall outdatedness of the logo are what ultimately led to its downfall. It’s longevity also allowed for the logo to persist for longer than its contemporaries due to the deep emotional attachment the logo had with the fan base in Cleveland. Chief Wahoo was synonymous with the Cleveland Indians just as a pentagon is synonymous with a stop sign.
The major turning point in the Chief Wahoo controversy was the 2016 World Series, when Cleveland squared off against the Chicago Cubs. By this point, the Indians were in year three of removing Chief Wahoo as their teams primary emblem and much of the controversy had died down. However, this highly publicized World Series reignited the fires of controversy.
The Indians would go onto lose to the Cubs in a classic 7 game series, but that was not the only news to come from the series. Due to baseball having a very long 162 game regular season, most teams do not get nationally televised exposure, unless, they make a run in the postseason in which case their popularity skyrockets. Ironically, the postseason success that the Indians finally were able to achieve with Chief Wahoo as their team symbol would ultimately be the logo’s undoing. The national spotlight also brought along increased criticism of the Indians logo. The logo which had been relegated to the teams hats and uniform sleeves was now plastered across millions of television screens across the country. This national exposure has now rendered the efforts to minimize but still utilize Chief Wahoo ineffective.
The Indians popularity continued to rise as the team was able to carry their success into the 2017 season as they would finish the year with the 3rd best record in baseball. This only made Chief Wahoo’s downfall even more inevitable as the Indians made yet another postseason appearance.
At last, that brings us to our current state of affairs where now the controversial Chief Wahoo will now be removed from all official usage by the Indians. The team will still own the rights to Wahoo and be able to sell merchandise featuring the Chief, but it appears as if Wahoo’s 70 year run as the face of Cleveland baseball has come to an end.