Opinion

Jacqueline Keeler: Racist name haunts urban Indian community






Jacqueline Keeler shares what it was like growing up with a racist Indian mascot in Cleveland, Illinois:
I am a Cleveland Indian.

No — I’m not referring to that grotesque caricature, “Chief Wahoo,” the Cleveland Indians baseball team uses as its mascot. What I mean is that I was born in Cleveland — a child of U.S. Relocation and Termination policies meant to make native American tribes disappear. The purported goal of these Termination-era congressional laws and resolutions was to “liberate Indians” from the wardship of the U.S. government. But what they did, in fact, was eliminate tribes’ federally recognized status, sovereignty, and force the sell-off of tribal assets and land. These policies also led to the loss of a generation of young people to urban centers — many of whom, like my parents, never returned home.

A recent tweet by a Cleveland blog called “Cleveland Frowns” went viral and made me think again of what it means to be a “Cleveland Indian.” The tweet featured a photo of a Cleveland Indians baseball fan, Pedro Rodriguez, his face painted red like Chief Wahoo, wearing a cheap, feathered headdress. He is, in this clownish approximation of an American Indian, attempting to speak to an actual American Indian, Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache and executive director of the American Indian Education Center in Cleveland. The image was quickly paired with an eerily similar 2002 cartoon showing a fan in redface saying, “But I’m HONORING you dude!” to a Native American man. And in fact, Rodriguez’s interaction with Roche apparently went much the same way. (Roche, a longtime leader in the Native American community and elder who has been protesting Chief Wahoo for 45 years, stated that he “did not feel honored” by the costume.)

The parallels between the cartoon and real life even led the cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz, to wonder: “Am I a prophet? A time-traveling cartoonist?”

I am often ashamed of my birthplace, Cleveland, as — let’s face it — its name does not connote class, progress, or future forward thinking, and instead recalls images of Lake Erie oil slicks burning smokily in Rust Belt despair. T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” comes to mind. And despite Cleveland Indians fans’ claims to “Cleveland Pride,” it is difficult for me to call myself a “Cleveland Indian,” when Chief Wahoo vies for the title as well. Seeing that image of Rodriguez in grotesque redface made me want to counter the stereotypes fueled by the mascot that still have such a strong hold on the minds of Clevelanders like him and to remind America what being a “Cleveland Indian” meant to my parents and their generation.

Get the Story:
Jacqueline Keeler: My life as a Cleveland Indian: The enduring disgrace of racist sports mascots (Slate 4/13)

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