Cleveland To Drop “Indians” Name: A Personal Reaction & Perspective

Cleveland To Drop “Indians” Name: A Personal Reaction & Perspective

Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) is happy to report the “Indians” name will be dropped by the Cleveland Major League Baseball franchise.  

From my own personal perspective, as an urban Native person, I’ve been advocating for the removal of mascots since I was in high school. I went to a high school in the 1980s with an “Indian” mascot and found it to be degrading and not ‘honoring’ as intended. Thirty years later, we are at a moment of racial reckoning where voices like mine and others seem to matter. For over 50 years, the Cleveland American Indian Movement, the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, the Lake Erie Native American Council, Cleveland Indigenous Coalition and many more formal and informal groups have organized and shown up tirelessly to protest the Cleveland baseball team’s name and logos.   

Nationally, the #ChangeTheName and #NotYourMascot grassroots movements have also been vocal components of the fight. 

For decades, local Ohio Native Americans held demonstrations at the Cleveland baseball team home opener, facing degrading verbal and physical assaults as they protested the team’s offensive branding and imagery. Phillip Yenyo, Executive Director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, has been to nearly every home opener for the past twenty years. In 2018, when the team retired the “Chief Wahoo” racist image, Yenyo said, “We’re going to continue until they change the name of the team.” 

That day has come. In a statement to NAP, Mr. Yenyo said, “Today is a good day to be Indigenous. This has been a six-decade long fight and is one of the most significant moments of our community here in Cleveland is the combination of generations of grassroots advocacy and activism by Indigenous leadership. The announcement from the team is absolutely the right decision, and made after genuinely listening to Indigenous people. The Cleveland Indigenous coalition plans to continue to engage with the team and other stakeholders during this period of transition. This is just the beginning, and our coalition remains dedicated to this important work as we move forward in this process. “ 

Another local activist and Ohio Elder, Guy Jones (Hunkpapa Lakota /Standing Rock) said in a statement to NAP, “Now that Cleveland is changing the name, we have the opportunity to make changes here in other parts of our community.” Mr. Jones, founder of the Miami Valley Council for Native Americans says that we must use this time of change as momentum in alignment with Native American values. He and others have been working through many efforts to end the use of Indigenous people as mascots throughout Ohio. Guy is currently promoting a change.org petition for a number of Ohio students who wish to remove harmful mascots from their schools. 

A 2014 analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that Native American “mascoting” is more prevalent in states where fewer Native Americans live. Ohio has no federally recognized Native American tribes and a Native population among the lowest in the nation — at 0.3 percent, according to U.S. Census data — after most Native people were brutally forced to leave the state in the 1800s. As a result, Ohio has more “Indian” sports mascots than any other state per capita, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Furthermore, there are currently 1,094 mascots in Ohio with over 200 public schools in Ohio still using such mascots and nicknames per the Mascot Database. 

When our existence is reduced to a caricature, logo, or brand the consequences are dangerous. Many have noted that the continued use of a racist stereotypes, names, and imagery is indefensible especially considering the trauma related to these mascots makes people feel powerless, tokenized, and mocked. Ignorance and misinformation about Native peoples histories and cultures has run rampant and should not continue to go unchecked.  

In March 2020, a study about “Native” and “Indian” mascots concluded that these images and words exacerbate offensive stereotypes and are dehumanizing to Native people. The American Psychological Association used this and other studies to conclude that “…these mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all…” and further establish an unwelcome and hostile environment for Native people. 

Native Americans in Philanthropy  celebrates the countless number of activists, scholars, and organizations who have worked toward this moment. This was the result of decades of protests and organizing by Native advocates, allies, and collaborators who focused their efforts on creating an inclusive and respectful future for Native people.  

Meet The Author: Dawn Knickerbocker
Dawn Knickerbocker (Anishinaabe, White Earth Nation) is the newest addition to the Native Americans in Philanthropy staff and recently joined us as our new Project Assistant. Dawn brings her experience in philanthropy and in supporting Native communities. She holds a B.A. in organizational management and completed graduate work in social impact and human rights practice.  You can read more about her here on the blog or on her page.