DISCLAIMER: Before we get down and dirty here, lets make one thing clear… I’m not asking you to change your mind… I’m not asking you to agree with me… I’m asking you to read, sit and think. That is all… think. This is how I feel on the subject based on what I know as an artist, designer… and ultimately a person that understands subliminal visual cues in branding and other visual media. You and I both have rights to our opinions even if we disagree. Its called the first amendment. This is why I… ME… as an individual… do not like something. My stating that I do not like something, in no way affects your first amendment rights if you like it. I can not affect your rights as I am not a “government actor”, and can not arrest, imprison or impede your life for having an alternate view. I can tell you how I feel, state my belief and why, and maybe get you to think critically. If you are going to get your panties in a twist over this before you even read what I am saying, or look at what I am referencing… please, do not read this, and just go back to what you were doing and drink your coffee.
It is Native American Heritage month, most likely because it is the month of Thanksgiving… which is odd when you think about it in a historical context. In light of this month, I’m going to touch on some things about art and design, and ultimately our view as a whole concerning Native Americans. (Yes, the month is nearly over… it took a long time to write this post)
First, lets talk about the Cleveland Indians and Chief Wahoo. We are going to ignore the name “Indians” for now and focus entirely on the mascot, even though there are some issues with the name and it plays into the problem in general…we are only going to talk image for the sake of this blog, and me being an artist and designer.
First a little history on the team. The Cleveland Indians, according to cannon history on the team website, states that the team was named to honor Louis Francis Sockalexis, the first American Indian major league player. However, this does not match news sources of the time. The actual story, it was a temporary name for the team, that was dubbed by sports writers until a better name could be found. Sockalexis is not mentioned in any of the early references of the team in any way. What is referenced, is scalps in belts and other war lingo.
Also, if this was meant as a tribute to Native Americans… It’s a fairly odd way of depicting an ‘Indian’ in this respect. For reference, hopping into the way back machine, lets look at cartoon depictions of all racial groups. Ethnic caricatures gained wide usage during the 1800’s. Nearly 30 million immigrants came to America at this time. This was a time of great resentment toward “the other”. Often, these various groups were drawn by cartoonists to get across an opinion to the public. These were often caricatures showing various groups as lazy, fat, dirty, barbaric and often facial features gave the impression of idiocy or monsters. This was a shorthand about common views, it was no different for Native Americans. They were shown as savages, sometimes “noble” sometimes not. These were barbarians in the eyes of “civilized” Americans and they were impeding the progress of the nation. Women were sexualized, men were made into war crazed heathens, and the fact that they were native peoples meant that they were thought of as unintelligent. What these cartoons did was dehumanize, in order to get public opinion to go a certain direction. The Native Americans were referred to as “The Indian Problem”… ultimately…they were in the way of an ever growing country.
Early depictions of Native Americans tend to lean toward “The Noble Savage” (think of the stalwart cigar store indian, upright, shoulders back, unflinchingly calm), the ideas of our early American forefathers was that the solution to the “problem” was to civilize the many tribes and assimilate them into white society. These were noble people, they could easily embrace the ideals of the New America… right? Not all tribes wanted to do this… By the time of Andrew Jackson, America began to adopt the idea of “manifest destiny”… in short… that white men were chosen by God to tame and populate America. Depictions of Native Americans became a bit different… though “the noble savage” is still used to this day, and most often to sell something… Native Americans had to be seen by the American people as just savages. Wild, warlike, unintelligent, uncivilized… in the way… animal like. When you see the “enemy” as a lesser, animal like being, it becomes much easier to force your own beliefs… its easier to take their freedom and belongings… Its much easier to march into a village and exterminate women and children when you think that they are animals.
And that is what ethnic stereotypes are… a comparison to animals… so that one group is higher up than the lesser group… for control. Images control the mind of the populace.
We know this very well from American propaganda from WWII. The Germans andJapanese were depicted as monsters, twisted caricatures of ethnicity… or just animals altogether… it made it easier for America to rally against an enemy when you didn’t see them as people. The Germans notoriously used ethnic caricatures in their propaganda, and often referred to the Jewish population as an infestation of rats.
Many of the caricatures have fallen to the wayside through the years, as people came to realize that stereotypes only promoted views of inequality. You no longer see rampant imagery of “little black Sambo” in school books. Buck toothed, slant eyed depictions of the Japanese are frowned upon. But, some of our stereotypes still exist. The drunken, fighting Irishman (I’ll talk some more about that when St. Patricks day rolls around) The mob boss Italian. The lazy Mexican. And, the red faced, dopey Native American (lets not forget drunk and gambling…).
And now we get back to Chief Wahoo. ( First of all “Chief Wahoo”? Really, no one gets how making fun of Native Americans with a ridiculous name for a character that supposedly “honors” Native Americans can be offensive?) But, anyway, lets talk about just the visual depiction of “Chief Wahoo”. Firstly, red skin… The term “Redskin” is a pejorative first used by early Americans. A slur… There are some sources that site that the term came from the bloody scalps of Native Americans that white Americans would exchange for money. Mostly, it was a derogatory term… And here is ol’ Chief Wahoo… if full primary red glory. A visual slur.
Also in regards to Chief Wahoo’s appearance, the teeth. The large grin is a common visual trope when depicting an imbecile or a savage… from the African witch doctor to the hillbilly, a large buck toothed grin has been used repeatedly and ingrained in our collective subconscious as a sign of stupidity, backwardness or being a savage. A savage, bears their teeth… which is why they were compared to dogs. Alternately, it can be used to show complacency, and in cases like depictions of “Uncle Tom” serve to show a happiness with what the white man has provided.
And of course there is the headband and feather, with slicked down hair… This is an amalgamated and homogonized version of “indian”. If the depiction of Chief Wahoo was in any way a homage to Sockalexis, then it should have looked like the man… or bore resemblance to the Penobscot Indians in his manner of dress… a quick google search reveals that he does not. Chief Wahoo more closely resembles Hollywood’s version of one of the plains indian tribes.
“Chief Wahoo” is a “grunting savage”. A big grinning, dopey face… the savage in cartoon form. Fans of the Cleveland Indians celebrate with war whoops and tomahawk chops. Now, if we go back to Sockalexis, arguably who the Indians are named for (however Sockalexis died several years before the name change)… Sockalexis, it could be argued, was not much more than an oddity to bring people to the ball park, as the Cleveland Spiders were a bit of a joke with the number of losses they had. Sockalexis brought people to the park, and was a good enough player that he increased their batting average. Every move he made, fans would holler out their war whoops and dance around in mock warrior fashion. War whoops were shouted out at him at away games as well… to mock him… to point him out and deride him. He was a constant object of ridicule. Fans were asked by sports writers to stop… but in the end, that provoked more. Ultimately, Sockalexis, described as a sensitive man, succumbed to what writers of the time dubbed “Indian weakness” and he died at age 42 of heart failure on the Penobscot Indian reservation.
Chief Wahoo was not, as has been widely touted, a dedication to Sockalexis. Chief Wahoo was a marketing ploy. Many of our sports teams are named after and have mascots or logos of Native Americans. Many tribes leaders have gone on record as stating that the depictions of Native Americans on many of these are considered just fine… However, the term “Redskins” as a team name, and Chief Wahoo as a mascot are constantly brought up as demeaning and inherently racist. The original drawing of Chief Wahoo was created at a time when Native Americans were equated with dogs, and signs outside of businesses stated “No Dogs, No Indians.” The image of Native Americans was a popular image to exploit to sell products bearing their homogenized likeness. It may surprise some that not all tribes wore feather head dresses. The various tribes had their traditions, art and culture combined into one overall “Indian” culture… as a result, much of what we know as Native American… isn’t really Native American… but a packaged and branded idea. And that in itself can be dangerous to the understanding of and advancement of a people.
Do I think that Chief Wahoo should be done away with. On a personal level, yes. But, it isn’t up to me. And ultimately, people need to understand WHY something is inherently wrong before you take it away to prevent anger… and more racial problems. However, we live in a time now, where most of us agree that depictions of little black Sambo, the Chinese laundry man and the Mexican bandito are not acceptable. Why then, do we insist on being OK with the denigration of Native Americans? Again, I am not asking for everyone to agree… I’m asking you to sit down and think… and ask WHY we think it is OK.