Fashions change. A hundred years ago, American Indians rode high in the American imagination. Their serious faces graced our coinage. They figured prominently in popular fiction and, by midcentury, in film, where they fought cowboys. James Fenimore Cooper was still on the syllabus. The stories were set in the past, in the early and middle innings of a game whose outcome you already knew. The Indians had fallen behind and were fated never to catch up, though they never gave up. Their toughness was legendary. Sure, the Trojans got whomped by the Greeks, but the losing team had character, and Vergil thought Romans should be proud to claim Aeneas and his crew as their founding fathers. Then the Romans repeated the trope: After executing a charismatic rabbi and sacking Jerusalem, the Eternal City began the long process of succumbing to a variant of Jerusalem’s religion.
You have to admire an enemy who maintains his honor in defeat and lives on in the expectation that his chance to redeem himself will come in due season. Resilience is a virtue. Through most of the past century, our fathers and grandfathers adopted American Indian motifs for countless professional sports teams and college and high-school athletic programs. Often the messages behind the names and the mascots included “Be afraid.” The characterization of Indian men as fierce might have been exaggerated, but how much do you think they really minded? The manly warrior who remains stoic to the bitter end is a stereotype combining a couple of attributes neither of which is wholly negative.
Most American Indians either approve of or do not object to Indian themes in organized sports. So the Peter Harris Research Group found in 2002 after Sports Illustrated commissioned it to conduct a survey. The campaign against the names and logos of various teams — the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, and the Cleveland Indians are subject to some of the loudest criticism — can boast of few Indian supporters at the grassroots. That’s been an embarrassment for leaders of the advocacy group the American Indian Movement. They take the hard line. They represent white liberals on this issue better than they represent Indians.
Only ostensibly are the politics about American Indians. What they’re really about is the primal clash between Indians and chiefs. If you belong to the latter class or aspire to, you know your lines in the script: Name-check Little Black Sambo. Try to change the subject to African Americans. Use the word “sensitivity.” First, identify the opinion favored by your peers or social superiors. Then claim it as yours, too, because you want them to renew your membership in the club or to admit you into it.
Or you can reject the chiefs and side with the Indians instead — with the hoi polloi, the common man, the underdog. The opinion of the first few hundred names in the Cleveland phone book weighs more heavily with you than does the opinion of the Plain Dealer’s editorial board, which recently declared against the cartoon figure Chief Wahoo, the logo of the Cleveland Indians since anyone can remember. Granted, the collective mind of a metropolitan daily newspaper is no longer what it once was. It’s a blunt instrument, too weak and worn down to shape public opinion, but it serves well enough as a stick for pointing readers to opinions already in fashion, which you instinctively buck.
Time is on your side: Fashions change. Depictions of American Indians in popular culture are less common now than in 1947, when the Indians’ owner, Bill Veeck, hired the J. F. Novak Company, a local signmaker, to give the city’s big-league baseball team a face. The job fell to 17-year-old Walter Goldbach, who these days lives in Hinckley, a Cleveland suburb, and says he’s “100 percent against” the movement to ditch Wahoo. Goldbach’s version of the Chief lasted until 1951, when the Indians introduced the upgrade, designed by a New York advertising firm, that has been used continuously since then. Veeck’s son Mike says Wahoo’s purpose was to be a visual statement of optimism and cheer. Most of that effect is achieved through the smile, which is pretty exuberant. Great teeth. This columnist for the Plain Dealer says she always thought Wahoo looked less like an Indian than like the Italian uncles of some of her Cleveland friends. Myself, I always thought the resemblance to Bob Feller was subliminal and then, once you saw it, striking. I wonder whether it was intentional.
“The politics of it don’t bother me,” Wahoo said in an interview with Esquire last summer. “You want to protest, be my guest. Chant. Wave signs. Burn me in effigy. But if you want to do something real to help the indigenous Americans who suffer across this land, get your butt to Pine Ridge and go to work. Putting me out of a job isn’t going to change a damn thing.”
Plain Dealer columnist Phillip Morris echoes the sentiment. “Nothing in this town [more] consistently brings out the holier-than-thou crowd than Chief Wahoo, the embattled emblem of the Cleveland Indians,” he writes, reinforcing his credibility along the way by repeating his judgment that, sure, Wahoo is racist and should retire, “but . . . ” Morris saves his ire for the club of “shallow crusaders” who “have no understanding of the plight of the Indian” in real life and who show no interest in the “corrosive pathologies” — dropout rates, child mortality, teen pregnancy, etc. — that flesh-and-blood American Indians suffer disproportionately.