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When is a Team's Logo Offensive?

My attempt to scratch the surface of a deeper issue

"What, we worry?"
"What, we worry?"
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Now that the Cleveland Indians are back in the World Series, their logo has come back under the spotlight for being offensive to many Native Americans. It brings me back to the 1991 World Series, when the Minnesota Twins faced the self-proclaimed, "America’s Team," the Atlanta Braves.

Back in the 1970’s, Ted Turner bought a struggling UHF station (WTBS), got the rights to broadcast the Braves games and eventually became part of many basic cable TV packages from coast to coast. The "Tomahawk Chop" and Braves fans dressed in "war paint" and kitschy headdresses became well known. I mostly found them and their cartoony "Chop" song sort of annoying, kind of like people who talk on Bluetooth in the grocery store or "The Wave." When the Braves and their fans showed up at the Dome, about 150 Native American protesters showed up hoping to "Stop the Chop," saying it portrayed a "false image of American Indians."

"Yes, there are larger issues, but we're tired of people looking at American Indians not as people, but as mascots," said Loretta Gagnon, a Chippewa Indian.

For his part, Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said the MLB was "sensitive to Native Americans" and would address it "next year." But that was 1991, and the Braves are still called the "Braves" and their fans still wave their red foam "tomahawks."

So what’s the big deal? Irish people aren’t upset by Notre Dame’s belligerent, drunken leprechaun mascot or Scandinavians about the Minnesota Vikings logo? Why are some Native American logos okay, and some aren’t?

The answer to the first question seems pretty straight forward; neither Irish nor Scandinavians are being used as caricatures and mascots by a dominant culture viewed by many as having oppressed them. While the Irish may have been repressed at one time in this country, Irish-Americans at Notre Dame probably had a lot to do with choosing the name and mascot.

Scandinavians in Minnesota aren’t really "oppressed" unless you count having to eat lutefisk at the town Lutheran Church or listening to "Ole and Sven" jokes from time to time. Although I do get a little upset about Viktor the Viking but that’s mostly because he reminds me more of Hulk Hogan than a Viking.

For the second question, let’s look at a few Native American team names and logos; the Cleveland Indians. Chicago Blackhawks, UND Fighting Sioux, and the Warroad Warriors.

Cleveland Indians

In 1915, after losing their namesake player, Nap Lajoie, the Cleveland Naps needed a new name. They went with "Indians" either as that was a nickname some called the team when a Native American named  Louis Sockalexis, played for the then Cleveland Spiders, or because of a contest to let fans choose the name, depending on which version you want to believe.

A predecessor of Chief Wahoo started appearing in a Cleveland newspaper in the 1930’s. In 1947, the Indians decided to adopt "the Little Indian" into their logo and a yellow skinned, big nosed caricature of an American Indian was created (seen here) and was later dubbed "Chief Wahoo." The current Chief Wahoo logo was created in 1951.

Some say Chief Wahoo bears a striking resemblance to Paul Seghi (pictured here with Frank Robinson) then a coach with the Indians minor league system, and that it is whom it was meant to portray and not intended as an ethnic slur on Native Americans. I have to admit, there is definitely a similarity, but there is also a definite similarity to Jim Crow caricatures of the time.

Chicago Blackhawks

The first owner of the Chicago hockey team had been a commander in the 86th Infantry Division named the "Black Hawk Division" named to honor Sauk Indian leader Black Hawk, so the team became the Black Hawks. Obviously it’s a bit muddy as to whom is supposedly being honored, Black Hawk or the owner’s old infantry unit. The Blackhawks logo has undergone some minor changes but has remained pretty much the same through the years.

There have been protests and calls for the Blackhawks to change their name and logo but not like there have been against the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins. I think in part it’s because neither their name nor their logo appear to be intended as a slur. The other part may be because the Blackhawks work with Native American groups such as the American Indian Center to educate the public about Native American history and invite Native American military veterans to participate in their opening ceremonies.

UND Fighting Sioux

UND started out as the "Flicker Tails," a ground squirrel, similar to gophers, the bane of many backyard gardens. In 1930, a story in the school paper called for a name change to something that was the natural enemy of Bison (NDSU’s mascot), the Plains Indian, the Sioux. The idea caught on and they became the "UND Sioux" and later the "UND Fighting Sioux."

UND’s logo has basically been an Indian chief design, except for the unfortunate "Sammy Sioux" design, and has undergone some changes (see picture here). It was even a slightly modified Blackhawks logo for almost 30 years. The 1999 "Legacy" logo was designed by a Native American artist from ND, but the name and the school have no direct relation to the Sioux tribes.

Things got increasingly messy for the "Fighting Sioux" name in the 1990’s. Ultimately, the ND Supreme Court ruled the school couldn’t use "Sioux" anymore in 2012. UND hockey fans still boo whenever the name "Fighting Hawks" is announced at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Warroad Warriors

Warroad is "HockeyTown USA." Five different cities across North America claim to be "HockeyTown," but only Warroad has produced five Olympic medals, no US Olympic hockey team has won a medal without at least one player from Warroad on the team, and they’ve been "HockeyTown" the longest.

Warroad High School was built on land that a descendant of a former Ojibwe chief had agreed to sell so that the area would have a high school. The school’s nickname and logo (seen here) were designed by local American Indian parents to honor that history.

It hasn’t been without controversy, in 2014 the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media threatened to sue if the logo wasn’t removed. They dropped it after Ojibwe leaders came to the school’s defense and the logo was rededicated later that year.

So it seems some of the factors involved are:

  • Whether or not the nickname or logo is seen as offensive or mocking like Redskins or Chief Wahoo.
  • What the original motivation was for the team name was, it’s a bit of a grey area when it comes to the Blackhawks, but clearly not with the Warriors.
  • What the team is doing to work with and involve Native Americans today. It’s probably helped the Blackhawks, but the "Legacy" logo was probably too little, too late for UND.

It’s not for me to say when Native Americans should object to a team’s nickname or logo or not. I have not experienced their history, or their lives as a result of that legacy. The idea that monozygotic siblings would rise up and complain about being used as a mascot for the Twins or Scandinavians worried that Viktor is mocking their culture is so remote that no comparison could be made anyway. But I do think Cleveland, baseball, and all of us would be better off if they changed their name to something else. What was wrong with "Spiders" anyway?

"We're too busy trying to protect the idea of a Native American or an Indian - but we're not Indians and we're not Native Americans. We're older than both concepts. We're the people. We're the human beings." ~John Trudell