Cleveland baseball is overdue for a makeover

Philip Yenyo is a devoted Browns fan. He’d love to extend his Cleveland sports loyalty to the baseball team. But as a Native American, he’s seen how the Chief Wahoo mascot causes harm and pain.

“I know children from our community who have been bullied because of it [the mascot], who had to leave Cleveland schools,” says Yenyo, executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio.

One day, Yenyo hopes to enter Progressive Field and cheer on a team that doesn’t degrade a race of people. Until then, he’ll continue standing outside the stadium to demonstrate why the Indians baseball name and mascot should be changed.

During one of these protests, an elderly Polish man approached him.

“He listened to me for a long time, and I saw a light bulb switch on in his head,” Yenyo says. “He began to tear up, then told me his story, and eventually took off his baseball cap. The Polish man said, ‘My grandfather bought me this Indians hat a long time ago, but if I knew it hurt another person like that, I never would’ve put it on.’”

This summer, the Cleveland Indians returned to the national spotlight because of the dispute between team owner Paul Dolan and Major League Baseball officials concerning the removal of the Chief Wahoo mascot and team name.

“We have never had a seat at the table in these discussions,” Yenyo says of the MLB leadership dispute.

He continued, “Chief Wahoo and Native mascots across the country further the idea that we’re sub-human or an ancient people, and this hurts us. At demonstrations, fans with red-painted faces and fake feathers taped to their hats yell at us, ‘Go back to where you came from and get over it — stop living in the past.’”

As the trend goes, the people most harmed by a societal ill have the least power to correct it and had nothing to do with its creation. Meanwhile, those of us who are privileged to avoid the harm, but stand by and watch it continue, have a responsibility to step in.

Everyone has a stake in changing the name: non-Native communities are fed a myth of these stereotypes, which plant seeds of racial bias in youth from a young age. A report by the American Psychological Association in 2001 states, “the continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities — especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous people.”

As Confederate statues continue to crumble in the wake of white terrorism in Charlottesville, it’s evident how many symbols remain from the underbelly of U.S. history that often go unchecked — many that never should have been created.

Around 1,000 Native American-themed mascots still exist in schools across the nation, with about 60 per year that decide to change their name. Many professional teams also have made smooth transitions to new names without losing their fan base. Surveys have circulated inquiring about a new name for Cleveland’s baseball team, so it’s time to pick one and move forward. After all, just like we hold our family and friends accountable for their actions, so too should we do the same for the city and sports teams we love.

Ultimately, we are presented with a choice: to maintain or relinquish our comfort in the face of people looking us in the eyes, asking us to listen and change.

  • Start a conversation with your family and friends who support the team to gauge how people feel about the issue. Brainstorm alternative names.
  • Tune in to the radio station of the American Indian Movement of Ohio
  • Consider reading literature from Indigenous perspectives, for example:
    In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by Walter Echo-Hawk. Check out this link for more:
  • Follow the American Indian Movement of Ohio and #notyourmascot on Facebook and Twitter to learn more.
  • Comment below if you’d like to learn more, and let me know if you want to set up a time to chat.
HEADER PHOTO: Philip Yenyo, left, speaks with a Cleveland Indians baseball fan.

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