It’s time to say goodbye, once and for all, to the current iteration of Cleveland’s baseball team — and Cleveland businesses have joined the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition and Northeast Ohio’s Native American community to declare their support.
Fifty area businesses (and counting!) have signed onto a statement calling on the team to change its name, end use of all Indigenous themes and imagery, and engage with Cleveland’s Native American community as it moves forward. The statement was organized by the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition, which is made up of four organizations: the American Indian Movement of Ohio; the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance; the Lake Erie Native American Council; and the Lake Erie Professional Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Cleveland’s Native communities have spent six decades fighting to put an end to the Indians’ team name, as well as nicknames like “The Tribe” and the Chief Wahoo logo (which was officially retired in 2018 but is still commonly worn by fans). Cynthia Connolly, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and development director at Policy Matters Ohio, says recent months have renewed hope for change.
“We formed this coalition shortly after the City of Cleveland declared racism a public health crisis,” says Connolly, who serves on the executive board of the Lake Erie Native American Council. “We saw that as an opportunity to see support for our call for the ball team to change its name.”
In July, the team issued a statement via Twitter that read, in part, “Our organization fully recognizes our team name is among the most visible ways in which we connect with the community…We are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”
Crystal Echo Hawk is the founder and CEO of IllumiNative and Echo Hawk Consulting; she joined the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition’s call to change the local team’s name. “We are encouraged by the actions taken by the Cleveland organization to conduct a review of their name and decide how to proceed,” Echo Hawk said. “However, it’s imperative this review, and the team itself, meets, listens, and seeks guidance from Native leaders of the Cleveland community who have been fighting for this name change, and from Native subject matter experts on the impact of Native mascots.”
The 2018 study Reclaiming Native Truths, co-led by Echo Hawk Consulting and the First Nations Development Institute, found that nationwide, about half the country (among the non-Native population) believes that Native-themed mascots honor Native Americans – but that that 4 in 5 Native Americans are offended by such mascots.
“We see a lot of talk from the ball team about [the team name and logo] being a 105-year tradition,” Connolly says, “but Ohio has zero federally recognized tribes, and all the Native people who were originally here have been either murdered via genocide or removed. There is no opportunity for Native people to control how or when our image will be used by non-Natives and people in positions of power.”
Reclaiming Native Truths found that the use of Native-themed mascots, logos, and team names contributes to low self-esteem, low community worth, and increased stress and depression in Native American youth, especially high school and college students. So why do so many Americans refuse to acknowledge how harmful such team names and mascots really are?
For starters, Connolly says, 87 percent of K-12 curriculum doesn’t talk about Native Americans after 1900, and two-thirds of Americans have not met a Native person – which means that many non-Native Americans have no frame of reference for modern Native communities.
“Our country just does not talk about Native people in a modern lens, in a modern context; we’re permanently stuck in the 1880s, feathered and leathered,” Connolly says. “When people don’t have an accurate understanding of who we are today, they are less likely to support Native American social justice and rights, which directly harms our community.”
Nationwide, more than 100 Native American tribes have called for the elimination of Native-themed sports team names and logos. They’re joined by the American Psychological Association, the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, the American Sociological Association, and others. The National Education Association has formally recommended the elimination of such team names, as well.
Signatories to the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition’s statement include five Cleveland Community Development Corporations; nonprofit organizations such as Black Lives Matter Cleveland, the YWCA of Greater Cleveland, ACLU of Ohio, and NAACP Cleveland Chapter; religious groups like the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis and the InterReligious Task Force; and local businesses, including Cleveland Public Theatre, Mitchell’s Ice Cream, and Joy Machines Bike Shop.
“As a literary organization, we supported the Change the Name petition because we know language is powerful and it matters who has power over that language,” says Matt Weinkam, associate director of Literary Cleveland, which signed on to the statement. “There are thousands of Native American people who call Northeast Ohio home today, and they deserve to have control over how they are represented. They should be able to tell their own story.”
To learn more about Native American visibility, watch “Modern Visibility: Indigenous Imagery and Representation in the 21st Century,” a virtual forum hosted by the City Club of Cleveland on August 21, 2020, featuring Crystal Echo Hawk and other expert Native American panelists.
The Cleveland Indigenous Coalition is still accepting signatories to its statement. To sign on, business/organizational representatives can email LENACohio@gmail.com; individuals can join the call by signing the online petition.