Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Despite Religious Opposition, Chief Wahoo Remains Cleveland Logo

c. 2005 Religion News Service

CLEVELAND _ I felt confident when I came to northeast Ohio in 1998 that I was going to love this place.

This type of vibrant ethnically and religiously diverse community was all I had ever known. I grew up in a suburb of New Haven, Conn., worked my first job as a religion writer in Buffalo, N.Y., and lived in a suburb next door to Bridgeport, Conn., for the decade I worked at The Associated Press in New York.

So there were only two things I found particularly striking after moving here. One was the East Side-West Side divide, where large groups of blacks and Jews chose mainly to live on one side of town.

The other was Chief Wahoo, the logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

It amazed me then _ and still does _ that such a bizarre caricature of American Indians continues as an influential symbol in a civil society.

What I see _ and what much of the world sees _ is a portrayal of an American Indian that is fire-engine red, bucktoothed and permanently wearing an idiotic grin. Look at the clothing and logos of any other professional sports team today, and no other major-league city has a logo with such an offensive stereotype.

But no stereotype dies harder around here.

I understand that Wahoo is accepted as an affectionate symbol of the baseball team. And I recognize that even among some individuals and groups that oppose Chief Wahoo, there are arguments against spending social and moral capital on what some would argue is a relatively unimportant issue.

There is every good reason not to disparage or attack those who support Chief Wahoo. To ask for civility and respect and turn around and make triumphant judgments on those who disagree would be inconsistent ethics. The more helpful path for those of us who oppose Wahoo is to use our concerns to examine our consciences as to how we stereotype others.

But, as the NCAA revived the issue with its recent decision to ban ethnically hostile and abusive nicknames and logos from postseason events, we can appreciate the courage of individuals who take an unpopular stand for moral reasons.

The religious community in particular has been at the forefront of those willing to risk derision to take a stand in the defense of the dignity of the individual, even if there are far more Wahoo worshippers than Indians in their sanctuaries.

The United Church of Christ has been outspoken against Wahoo since the 1980s. The Catholic Diocese’s Commission on Catholic Community Action called on the Indians in 1993 to drop the logo.

Since I came here in 1998, United Pastors in Mission, the United Methodist Church, the Presbytery of the Western Reserve and the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio have been among the religious groups joining the anti-Wahoo struggle. The Unitarian-Universalist Association sponsored a protest vigil in a driving rain at Jacobs Field during its annual meeting in Cleveland in 2001.

And we can particularly hold up individuals who are willing to give up an inherited love for Wahoo in recognition that others find it a hurtful symbol of a history of painful prejudice.

If history is a guide, Wahoo one day will go the way of Sambo’s restaurants and Dr. Fu Manchu references.

When that day comes, I hope it will not be accompanied by too much bitterness and anger.

Rather, one hopes it will be the act of a community that sacrificed for a common good and patiently, kindly, gently, peacefully struggled together in a deeper conversation over what it means to love thy neighbor.


(David Briggs writes about religion for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. You can reach him at dbriggs(at)

Editors: Search the RNS photo Web site at for a photo of Briggs.

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