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As Cleveland Indians prepare to drop Chief Wahoo, tensions reignite

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Nick Swisher, a first baseman with the Cleveland Indians, with a Chief Wahoo team logo on his jersey, at a game against the New York Yankees in New York in 2013. The 2018 season is the last the Indians will use the controversial logo on their uniforms, heightening tensions at a protest before the team’s home opener.

For decades, community activists in northeast Ohio have held demonstrations at the Cleveland Indians’ home opener to protest the team’s name and logo — a grinning, red-faced caricature named Chief Wahoo that some consider racist.

And in what has become another tradition, Chief Wahoo’s supporters have screamed back as they head toward the turnstiles at Progressive Field.

The back-and-forth Friday at Cleveland’s first home game of the season followed a pattern similar to past years’ protests. But one longtime participant, Philip Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, said the confrontation was more crowded, more tense and more vulgar than usual. The heightened atmosphere was likely due in part to the team’s decision to stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on its uniforms beginning next year — which angered some fans when it was announced in January.

Cleveland’s baseball team is just one part of a cultural conversation that stretches across the sports landscape. Many people vigorously oppose the use of Native American names and images as mascots and insignia, saying they are demeaning or worse. Several teams use such logos, including the NFL’s Washington Redskins, the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and the NCAA’s Florida State Seminoles. But some find the Indians’ caricature, which has existed in various forms since 1947, particularly distasteful.

One video of this year’s demonstration, which was organized by Yenyo’s group and the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, has been viewed more than 110,000 times.

“People think this is just now coming up,” Yenyo said. “We were never covered before. All the other demonstrations were barely touched upon.”

In another video, also produced by cleveland.com, dozens of protesters yelled, “Seventy years of harming the Native American community is enough”; “Change the name, change the logo!”; and “Burn, Wahoo, burn!”

In response, some fans walking to the stadium hurled profanity-laced tirades at the protesters, along with ugly names and obscene gestures.

“Get a job,” one fan yelled, along with an expletive.

“Get a grip,” shouted another.

Several flaunted team jackets, jerseys and caps emblazoned with the Chief Wahoo logo. One fan made whooping noises as she walked by.

Yenyo called this year’s rally “a little more boisterous” than normal, but he noted that there were no arrests and no violence. Administrators of the Facebook group Keep Chief Wahoo, which is followed by about 17,000 people, did not respond to a request for comment Sunday night. Neither did two spokesmen for the Indians.

In January, Major League Baseball announced that the Indians would stop using Chief Wahoo on their uniforms in 2019, making this season something of a swan song. (Officials have said it will continue to be included on merchandise in some retail outlets.) In 2014, the team reduced the prominence of the Chief Wahoo logo, giving more visibility to a block-letter “C” on Cleveland hats.

But Yenyo said that was not enough, noting that fans should expect to see protesters again next season.

“We’re going to continue until they change the name of the team,” he said. “We want the name gone.”

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