Decision on Indians' logo about bigger picture

January 29th, 2018

A fellow Northeast Ohio native who works in the construction business once told me about a work trip that required a drive through the Arizona desert. He had stopped at a convenience store owned and operated by Native Americans and found they had the most amazing selection of real meat jerky. Beef jerky, elk jerky, boar jerky, venison jerky. You name it. If you were jonesing for jerky, this was the place to be.

So this guy made a few selections and brought them to the register.

"How much?" he asked the Native American woman behind the counter.

She just stared at him in disbelief.

"How much?" he asked again, and again she just stared, before summoning an older gentleman.

The guy was really getting confused.

"How much?" he asked a third time, and the Native American man now standing behind the register just stared, with an angry and suspicious look on his face.

Finally, the guy gave up and walked out of the store. As he went to get into his car, he looked down at the T-shirt he had totally forgotten he was wearing. And there, emblazoned on his belly, were the wide grin, bulbous nose, triangular eyes and blood-red face of Chief Wahoo.

Forget the jerky. Now he just felt like a jerk.

This is what happens when the quirky cartoon of our youth faces a reality we weren't exposed to or couldn't quite comprehend. Like so many other Cleveland kids, I didn't know a single Native American growing up. But I did grow up with Chief Wahoo. He was on my clothes, he was on my cards, he was one of the many things I'd sketch in my notebook when I should have been paying attention to my teachers. And in his 28-foot form high atop Cleveland Municipal Stadium, he was a reference point, my childhood compass guiding me to Gate D (my preferred access point, because it led you directly to seats near right field, where the immortal Cory Snyder played).

And so I've always understood the sentimentality associated with Wahoo. I get why people here view the logo as some intrinsic piece of this ballclub's brand. It's why many fans will be upset with Major League Baseball's announcement Monday that the 2018 season will be the last with Chief Wahoo on the Indians' uniforms.

But the inconvenient reality of sharing a planet with other human beings is that you don't get to decide what is or what is not offensive to people. And if you divorce yourself even momentarily from the laundry you've grown up rooting for, it's really not difficult to understand why Native American groups would be offended by this exaggerated, unflattering, cartoon portrayal of their people.

The Indians have been wearing Wahoo on their uniforms in one shape or another since 1947, and American Indian groups have been protesting it since at least 1971. So for the majority of the time this logo has been in use, it has been met with opposition. But until very recently -- when Commissioner Rob Manfred pressed Indians chairman and chief executive officer Paul Dolan on the matter after the Tribe's 2016 run to the American League pennant amplified the public discussion about Wahoo -- that opposition has pretty much been ignored.

Dolan has been the man caught in the middle of this clash between the fans married to team tradition and the others who are understandably upset with what this image represents. And Monday's announcement seemingly comes with middle ground. The Indians won't wear the logo on the field, but they'll still sell it in their shops. One reason for that is a "use it or lose it" legal issue associated with the logo. If the Indians lose the trademark, another business could claim it, and then who knows where Chief Wahoo pops up.

Wahoo has endured because Native Americans make up such a small percentage of our populace (0.3 percent of the Cleveland population, as of the latest census) and have so little voice in our politics. And Wahoo has endured long enough that many of us have become totally desensitized to how others with different viewpoints or life experiences might perceive it. It would be inconceivable in the year 2018 to launch a business bearing a logo that characterized an ethnic group in such a fashion, and that's long been the bottom line here.

Monday's announcement obviously doesn't put the Wahoo issue to bed. People will still wear it, and people will still protest it. But the Indians' agreement with MLB ought to have all of us who grew up with this little image on our hats and hearts thinking about the bigger picture. What matters, what doesn't. What's respectful, what isn't.

Personally, I can't say I've ever looked into the eyes of a Native American while wearing Chief Wahoo gear. And I really can't say I'd want to, either.