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Debate over the Cleveland Indians' Mascot

By       Message Dennis Bernstein       (Page 1 of 5 pages)     Permalink

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Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians' mascot.
Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians' mascot.
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With the Cleveland Indians in Major League Baseball's World Series, attention is drawn again to the team's smiling mascot, Chief Wahoo, who represents to many Native Americans a racist stereotype.

Indeed, a "real" Cleveland Indian -- Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo Yankton Dakota Sioux who was raised in Cleveland and is now a writer based in Portland, Oregon -- has been fighting against Chief Wahoo and other sports mascots that are degrading toward Native Americans. She was interviewed regarding the image's high profile during the series against the Chicago Cubs.

Dennis Bernstein: Why don't you give us a little background on your family and growing up in Cleveland?

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Jacqueline Keeler: Many people don't know this, but Cleveland was the site of a relocation program that took places in the 50's, 60's and early 70's. It was part of a two-pronged program launched by the U.S. Congress to terminate tribes, and to relocate the populace, to relocate Native Americans, to urban centers. And it was a way to make us disappear, and also to gain access to our lands, and many tribes were terminated, and then they had their land sold. And, here in Oregon, many tribes were terminated and they got access to their timber stands.

["] And so, my parents were relocated, they were on the relocation program into Cleveland and as young people. And within a decade of that program starting in Cleveland by the late 60's [Cleveland] had a pretty substantial Native population for the first time since Native people were removed from Ohio, in the 1830's, to Oklahoma.

DB: And so your parents met there?

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JK: Uh-huh.

DB: And that was part of a relocation and termination policy?

JK: Yes, for tribes. And luckily that was defeated, and turned around. And my tribes were not terminated.

DB: What was the policy? Explain that policy.

JK: Well, the idea was that they would just finally get rid of tribes. Tribes are actually sovereign nations within the United States. And we're pesky reminders that the United States is basically occupying our lands. And so they were just hoping to wave a wand and make us all go away. And then taking the relocation program was, for young people, from 18 to 35 years of age, and the idea was to basically de-populate our communities, and make us disappear in large cities.

And so these relocation programs were set up in Los Angeles, in Denver, in Cleveland, in Dallas, Texas. Within a short time there were about 20,000 young Native people in Cleveland. And what they did was, they began to organize. And one of the first things they began to organize against was Chief Wahoo. And so the earliest documented large scale protest against Chief Wahoo occurred in 1968.

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DB: Okay, remind us who Chief Wahoo is, what he stands for, because everybody is not from Cleveland.

JK: Yeah. It's a totally grotesque caricature of a Native person. Supposedly, it's meant to honor a Cleveland baseball player who was Native American back in the early 20th century. It's a really grotesque caricature.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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