Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians, and the Tribal Nature of Brands
The Cleveland Indians announced that they were retiring their mascot, Chief Wahoo, after the 2018 season. The mascot had come under increasing criticism for being a racist depiction of native Americans and the club decided that it was time for him to go. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a furor erupted from loyal fans who were angry at the move. To those, Chief Wahoo isn’t racist, but an icon of their culture, part of their core identity.
At a time when our society has largely replaced religion with political affiliation and culture with brand, sports teams often occupy a special hallowed place in the hearts and minds of fans. If athletes are deities, stadiums are churches, and teams are our new religions, is it any wonder that fans say prayers at the bottom of the 9th hoping for a home run? The fervent nature of our attachments to these brands, though, means we can often be blinded to their cultural insensitivity. To admit that a beloved icon is racially charged is to admit our own racism and, so, many will simply deny such racism exists, defending what they find familiar.
But defending racism is never appropriate. Cleveland Indian fans deserve, and should demand, better. Chief Wahoo should be laid to rest along with other racially-charged symbols like the Confederate Flag, blackface, and others. Instead of trying to defend Chief Wahoo, fans should demand the club develop a brand that portrays Cleveland in a positive light, as a forward-thinking, culturally aware and dynamic city. Maybe in his departure, that’s one lesson we can all learn from the Chief.
Full disclosure—I grew up rooting for the Cleveland Indians and have fond memories being taken to games at Cleveland Stadium with my father. As an eight-year-old baseball fan, I never saw Chief Wahoo as a racist symbol, only as a symbol of my favorite team. But I’m not eight anymore. He’s a racist depiction of a native American and needs to go. Well done Cleveland Indians for understanding this.