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Less visibility for Chief Wahoo a good but small step, Mason professor says

January 31, 2018

C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa

Chief Wahoo is no more—kind of.

The traditional but, to some, racist caricature of a Native American will not be part of the Cleveland Indians uniform, beginning in 2019. And though a George Mason University professor declared this “a good thing,” he also called it only “a small step forward.”

“It’s kind of a half measure to me,” said C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, a history professor who has researched and written extensively about the Native American experience. “The team is not going to wear it on the field, and it won’t be displayed prominently in the stadium, but people can still buy merchandise with the Chief Wahoo logo. So they’re not getting rid of it completely.”

The logo, which depicts a red-faced Indian with oversized white teeth, has been part of the team’s uniform since 1947. The team has been called the Indians since 1915. But the logo recently drew criticism from Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, who does not want players wearing the logo during the 2019 All-Star Game at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Indians owner Paul Dolan told the newspaper the struggle was to find “a compromise” between the people who love Chief Wahoo and others who are offended by it.

Genetin-Pilawa, who grew up outside Cleveland and attended many Indians games (though he said he did not own Chief Wahoo merchandise), said the “compromise” shows how the larger controversy about sports teams with Native American nicknames and logos is far from settled.

Genetin-Pilawa pointed to Dolan telling the Plain Dealer the logo is part of the Cleveland Indians’ history, and his description of those who find the logo offensive as “a small minority or more than that.”

“It sort of goes along with the continued cultural appropriation of native culture by non-native people,” Genetin-Pilawa said. “They claim this image. And even stepping aside from the fact of the racism and dehumanization of these types of logos, it’s like taking ownership of something that isn’t theirs.”

That is why Genetin-Pilawa said the part of the Native American community that finds such logos offensive, as well as the names of sports teams such as the Redskins, Braves, Chiefs and Warriors, will continue to agitate for change.

“Hey,” he said, “Washington’s NBA team changed its name from the Bullets to the Wizards because the name reminded people of the crime that was rampant at the time in Washington, D.C. So it’s not unprecedented to change a team name.”

C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, who has held fellowships at the Smithsonian Institution and the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, can be reached at 703-993-1250 or cgenetin@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.