What’s in a Name? It’s the Cleveland Indians’ Turn

by Nicholas Frankovich

Robert Roche of the American Indian Education Center in Parma, Ohio, plans to file a federal lawsuit against the Cleveland Indians in July. He says he will seek $9 billion in damages because he thinks the club’s name and logo are racist. The Indians were valued at $570 million by Forbes in March.

Roche’s complaint is moral and aesthetic, and he is free to argue it. His attempt to translate it into legal action would seem to be a non-starter, however. The Indians are a private corporation. His purpose may be simply to generate publicity for his cause.

Part of what distinguishes this case from the movement against the name of the Washington Redskins is that it involves a team logo, Chief Wahoo, who, as I argue here, was conceived in innocence in 1947 and is liable to be as uncontroversial in the future as he was then: Our grandchildren will be unlikely to share the particular tastes and sensibilities that mark our own generation.

But let’s focus on the name, the place in the Venn diagram where this case intersects with objections to the Washington Redskins. Whereas critics of the Redskins assert that “Redskins” is offensive, evidently Roche does not find “Indians” to be offensive in itself, since it’s included in the name of his own organization. Presumably he feels that it is the Cleveland Indians’ appropriation of the word that constitutes disrespect for American Indians.

The history of the Cleveland club’s adoption of the name “Indians” includes what even for most students of the game will come as a few surprises. For many years the Indians’ official explanation was that in 1915 they named themselves “Indians” in honor of Louis Sockalexis, an American Indian who had played for the Cleveland Spiders in 1897–99 and had recently died. Some details of that account as the Indians presented it were eventually exposed as inaccurate. It was generally dismissed as having been debunked in toto, but further digging has revealed that Cleveland’s major-league baseball team had been called “the Indians” informally, after Sockalexis, before the name was resurrected and claimed formally, in 1915. In 1903 it had christened itself “the Naps,” after another player, Napoleon Lajoie, whose trade to the Philadelphia Athletics after the 1914 season necessitated a name change. Joe Posnanski tells the story here.

As for the Redskins, John Thorn, official historian of Major League Baseball, comments on Facebook that “what people seem to gloss over in assessing virtues or deficits of character implicit in the naming of the Washington Redskins is that the team was moved to DC from Boston . . . where the baseball teams were the Braves and the Red Sox. I rather suspect that symmetry with those names had more to do with the football team’s name than anything else.”

The Redskins started out as the Braves, after Boston’s National League baseball team. For their first season, 1932, the football Braves sublet Braves Field from the baseball Braves. The next year, the football team moved to Fenway Park, home of Boston’s other baseball team, the Red Sox. That’s when the owners of the NFL franchise came up with the name “Redskins,” which cleverly referenced the Sox while retaining the original American Indian motif and, through that, the tie to the Braves.

The word “redskin” appears to have originated with American Indians, who used it to refer to themselves collectively, in pan-tribal terms, when negotiating with European settlers. That usage can be traced back to the late 18th century, and evidence for it even in the 17th century is extant though less solid.

It’s hard to ascertain the precise “hum and buzz of implication,” as Lionel Trilling called it, that attended words as they were used before our time. Critics of the name choice “Redskins” say that it reflects the racial insensitivity of an earlier era. They project onto the word their unease over the idea of skin color, which, by metonymy, has come to stand for racial difference and the racism that awareness of it enables. Their consciousness of race is shaped by the history of American slavery and its aftermath, but the associations that “redskin” had for the American Indians who taught the expression to French and English colonists were almost certainly different.

Given that “redskins” was what American Indians called themselves, the term is the opposite of disparaging. It’s respectful. The past is a foreign country, they speak differently there, and we object to the meaning that we give to the words they use. Of course, we could always enrich our own language by borrowing from theirs, but xenophobia is a stubborn vice.

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