A recent viral
photo of a sports fan in redface shows us how little has changed
in America's attitudes toward race
I am a Cleveland Indian.
No I'm not referring to that grotesque caricature, "Chief
Wahoo," the Cleveland Indians baseball team uses as its mascot.
What I mean is that I was born in Cleveland a child of U.S.
Relocation and Termination policies meant to make native American
tribes disappear. The purported goal of these Termination-era congressional
laws and resolutions was to "liberate Indians" from the wardship
of the U.S. government. But what they did, in fact, was eliminate
tribes' federally recognized status, sovereignty, and force the
sell-off of tribal assets and land. These policies also led to the
loss of a generation of young people to urban centers many
of whom, like my parents, never returned home.
A recent tweet by a Cleveland blog called "Cleveland Frowns"
went viral and made me think again of what it means to be a "Cleveland
Indian." The tweet featured a photo of a Cleveland Indians baseball
fan, Pedro Rodriguez, his face painted red like Chief Wahoo, wearing
a cheap, feathered headdress. He is, in this clownish approximation
of an American Indian, attempting to speak to an actual American
Indian, Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache and executive director
of the American Indian Education Center in Cleveland. The image
was quickly paired with an eerily similar 2002 cartoon showing a
fan in redface saying, "But I'm HONORING you dude!" to a Native
American man. And in fact, Rodriguez's interaction with Roche apparently
went much the same way. (Roche, a longtime leader in the Native
American community and elder who has been protesting Chief Wahoo
for 45 years, stated that he "did not feel honored" by the costume.)
The parallels between the cartoon and real life even led the
cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz, to wonder: "Am I a prophet? A time-traveling
I am often ashamed of my birthplace, Cleveland, as let's
face it its name does not connote class, progress, or future
forward thinking, and instead recalls images of Lake Erie oil slicks
burning smokily in Rust Belt despair. T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland" comes
to mind. And despite Cleveland Indians fans' claims to "Cleveland
Pride," it is difficult for me to call myself a "Cleveland Indian,"
when Chief Wahoo vies for the title as well. Seeing that image of
Rodriguez in grotesque redface made me want to counter the stereotypes
fueled by the mascot that still have such a strong hold on the minds
of Clevelanders like him and to remind America what being a "Cleveland
Indian" meant to my parents and their generation.
In the 1950s and '60s, Cleveland was one of several "Relocation
Centers" across the country set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs
to receive young Native people lured from their homelands with promises
of a better life. This, of course, was in preparation for the be-all-and-end-all
solution termination and full assimilation to the
"Indian Problem" that had vexed Congress since the founding of the
The Cleveland Plain Dealer trumpeted the news in a 1957 article
stating, "Cleveland is going to get some new Indians, but this is
no baseball story." Some quotes from the article demonstrate the
mind-set of the city about Native people:
"First to arrive, probably before another moon goes by will be an
18-year-old maiden from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in the Dakotas"
"First smoke signals telling of Indians on a peace path to Cleveland
were sent up at a transit board meeting yesterday"
"The 'Great White Father' in Cleveland will be Verdon C. Christiansen,
field relocation director"
By the 1960s, around the time my parents arrived, there were
an estimated 9,000 Native Americans in the city from tribes all
over the country. My parents were drawn there like many young people
by promises of educational opportunities, job training and greater
economic opportunity. They were lucky: They succeeded and went to
college and were able to provide a better life for me. Most were
When my dad arrived in Cleveland, the BIA gave him a voucher
to stay at a hotel. When he opened the door to his room, there was
dried blood on the floor and on the door, and all night a drunk
man kept him awake trying to break his door down trying to get in.
My dad was a tough guy, a former high school football captain and
soldier in the Army, but even for him it was an extremely unsettling
experience. On advice from his Dakota Sioux and Episcopalian
mother, he contacted the church. After enduring an awkward
tea and interview about his prospects (he was attending engineering
school) at the home of a wealthy, elderly Episcopal woman, he was
given enough money to pay for better accommodations.
Others were not so lucky. As he was checking out of the hotel,
my father saw a young Ojibway family entering the lobby. He tried
to warn them about the place, but they could not speak English and
did not comprehend what he was saying. In his 60s, he told me he
was still haunted by the question of what became of them. He hoped
they were able to go back to their reservation, because he never
saw them again at community events.
To meet the needs of families that the Bureau of Indian Affairs
could not (or would not) help with, urban Native communities across
the country banded together and formed community centers to take
care of their own. My mother, despite being a poor college student,
saved her money and baked pies to raise money to help needy families
in the community. She and her girlfriends intervened and got a Native
student out of a rough school where he was being bullied and into
another that was safer. Some of these community centers, like the
Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, Calif., still exist today.
Others, like Cleveland's American Indian Center, have not survived.
And then there was the American Indian Movement a civil rights
organization patterned on the Black Panthers that formed in urban
Native communities to provide protection to members who were often
harassed by the police and were the frequent victims of violence.
In Cleveland, the late Russell Means, the well-known Oglala Lakota
activist and actor, organized a local AIM chapter. My father used
his connections within the Episcopal church his family included
a few well-known Dakota Sioux Episcopal priests to obtain
a simple desk with a working telephone in the basement of the Episcopal
church for Means to begin his work.
It was from such humble beginnings 45 years ago that Means began
organizing the community to protest the Cleveland Indians baseball
team. These protests continue to this day. Means is no longer with
us he has "walked on," as we say in Indian Country
and my father also passed away this summer; yet here we are, still
protesting. My children have joined the fray three generations
and still waiting for Chief Wahoo to be put to rest.
Such caricaturing has been promoted by billion-dollar sports
franchises that are broadcast nationally every weekend. Nike continues
to manufacture and sell gear emblazoned with Chief Wahoo and the
Washington football team's offensive mascot, or with slogans such
as FSU's "Fear the Spear" on them. In America, there is no other
ethnic group so casually subjected to such treatment we are
repulsed as a society by black or Asian caricatures or stereotypes,
but Native people are not regarded the same.
My parents first met at a University Circle diner that young
Native college students frequented in Cleveland, a place affectionately
called "the Greasy Spoon." They enjoyed a long and happy marriage.
Relocation brought them together and made me a Cleveland Indian.
It is my hope that the sight of that fan "Playing Indian" and dressing
in redface is enough to finally bring about the end of Chief Wahoo.
To this end, I helped start an organization called Eradicating
Offensive Native Mascotry. "Native Mascotry" is a term I coined
to describe the acting out that occurs when fans play out their
fantasies of being Indians. Because it's not just the static image
of the mascot that is the problem, be it stoic and noble or a horrific
caricature with a feather on top. It is the license it confers others
to act out dated stereotypes about us and ignore our real issues
even our humanity. This is particularly noticeable when members
of EONM challenge fans, who immediately go from saying, "But we
are honoring you," to, "You're drunks and on welfare, you should
be grateful we are doing this."
Despite hundreds of years of Manifest Destiny in all its permutations,
like Termination and Relocation we are still here. My mother's tribe,
the Navajo Nation, is the size of Ireland, and now has a population
equal to that of Iceland. Our nations also control a great deal
of the energy resources left within the United States. To obtain
them, the U.S. government is going to have negotiate with us on
a nation to nation basis. Yet, despite this, most Americans have
only a hazy idea of Native Americans that revolves around stereotypes
that mascots promote.
When I was about 11 years old, my mother told me a story about
her first morning in Cleveland. She was 18 years old, a recent high
school graduate from the Navajo Nation, and was staying with a white
family who had once lived in her hometown on the reservation. On
her first morning, she awoke disoriented and crying, absolutely
convinced the sun had risen in the West, and despite the constant
reassurances of her hosts that, in fact, the sun had risen in the
East, she could not be convinced otherwise.
Even years later, I could tell she still felt guilt about moving
outside of the Dinetah, her homeland where the ceremonies work to
keep her as a Navajo woman in Hozho, harmony. But she stayed and
found a loving husband and made a good life for herself and her
children and now, for her grandchildren. She would not want her
grandchildren, all enrolled Navajo citizens, to be defined by the
stereotypes promoted by Chief Wahoo. They deserve better. We all
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living
in Portland, Ore., finishing her first novel, "Leaving the Glittering