This story was published on April 03, 2004 on Page D1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News
(Editor’s note: In this second of three columns on disrespect to Native Americans in the world of sports and, particularly, disrespect to a Maine Indian legend, Louis Sockalexis, author Ed Rice discusses how Louis Sockalexis inspired the nickname “Indians” the major league team in Cleveland uses to this day, but is in no way honored by the continuing specter of the racist caricature, Chief Wahoo)
In Maine, we should be more sensitive regarding disrespectful traditions aimed at Native Americans. And everyone, everywhere in this state should be particularly incensed at disrespect focused at our Penobscot tribe by the Cleveland Indians organization, which continues to claim (and rightly so) that the team’s nickname originated because of a real Indian from Maine.
That man was Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot born and buried on Indian Island, whose very presence during spring training of 1897 caused a sensation and relegated the previous nickname “Spiders” to the bench.
Yet, no fair-minded person could begin to accept the notion that the memory of Sockalexis is in any way “honored” through the continued use of the absurdly ugly and racist caricature called “Chief Wahoo,” adopted long after Sockalexis’ death in 1913 and adopted long after creation of the official nickname of Indians in 1915. This pathetic “tradition” began in the late 1940s and connects in no way whatsoever to the historical figure of Sockalexis. In fact, the cartoonish Chief Wahoo has been dubbed “Little Red Sambo” by opponents of the logo, from all over the country.
Those of us who are already attempting to fight the good and effective fight to shame the Cleveland baseball team into doing the right thing know, presently, the message falls on deaf ears.
Actually, the message falls prey to deaf ears and a highly insulting attitude. Why? The Penobscot Nation mailed a resolution to the Cleveland franchise back in the fall of 2000, asking the team to “cease and desist” from using the “shameful, racist caricature” that is Chief Wahoo … and to this very day the Penobscots have not gotten a single word of acknowledgment that the resolution was even received.
On a trip to Cleveland in late August of 2003, to promote a book I recently authored on Louis Sockalexis, I personally dropped off copies of the Penobscot resolution at the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper office, the NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox network television offices, and placed a copy of it directly into the hands of the Cleveland Indians vice president for public relations.
And still there has been no interest shown in the issue, from the Cleveland media, and still there has been no reply from the Cleveland major league baseball team.
To be told “Yes” or even “No” is one thing; to be ignored completely, it seems to me, is the greatest indignity, the greatest insult of all. The Penobscot Tribal Governor, Chief Barry Dana, and the Penobscot Council deserve far, far better at the hands of the Cleveland ownership.
So, this is a call to arms. I know there were many conscientious Maine citizens, of all skin colors, who just could not bring themselves to push the lever in support of any gambling venture, Native American-sponsored or otherwise, no matter how well intentioned. Fine. Here is an opportunity to take a stand on a national issue and support our Native American population in Maine.
ACTION STEP: To the Cleveland Indians ownership: We, in Maine, do not appreciate the disrespect shown to our Native American people and the legacy of Louis Sockalexis. Acknowledge receipt of the Penobscot Resolution of 2000 … and then answer it, preferably with a response that indicates that you finally, at long last, “get it”: Native Americans are a race of people; they are not mascots.
It would help if the governor of this state, memorably seen in news footage and photographs gleefully rejoicing that the Native American gambling initiative had been killed, could get on board. It is the ultimate hypocrisy to claim, Gov. Baldacci, you are combating gambling at every door when we have gambling in churches (bingo), gambling in convenience stores (lottery games galore), gambling at racetracks (with initiatives pending for slot machines, which you did not reproach with anywhere near the zeal you did concerning the casino), gambling opportunities in many homes (via the Internet), and even well-promoted gambling offshore (with The Cat almost triumphantly boasting of this pursuit on its cruises). How about a proclamation, Gov. Baldacci and the state of Maine Legislature, to show the outside world that we are capable of mustering up a little support for our Native American populace?
And, yes, I know how large a hurdle this attempt to send Chief Wahoo packing represents. On that trip last summer to Cleveland, I learned two staggering bits of information from a news reporter, just prior to a live interview conducted with me, at the public broadcasting station in downtown Cleveland. He said there were two very significant reasons why the Cleveland ownership wasn’t about to give Chief Wahoo his walking papers … no matter how insidious and insulting he might be. The Cleveland logo, this reporter stated, is the second-most popular baseball logo in the country, second only to the New York Yankees logo. And second, there are just too many Native Americans around this country, Mexico, and elsewhere – apparently those with very low self-esteem – who wear caps with the logo proudly.
So, the enemy is armed with nasty weapons of mass degradation – the logo makes unconscionable sums of money (so too, however, would any new design … and it couldn’t help be more attractive than what exists) and you can even find Native Americans who will wear it – to combat our simple pleas for civility, respect, and the act of simply doing the right thing.
With the supporters of impolite racial incivility carrying such potent ammunition, it would be nicely considerate and enormously helpful if media commentators, too, could use the kind of clout necessary, on air and in print, to signal to the Cleveland baseball team that respect is warranted, respect is demanded. An insidious and completely disrespectful mascot and logo displayed nationwide should not be regarded as a trivial matter to be shrugged off.