“Chief Wahoo” and Playing Indian in Sports: The Modern-Day Minstrel Show

Just as the blackface minstrel shows in the 1800’s characterized African Americans in ways that were untrue and hurtful, “Chief Wahoo” and other sports teams with “Indians” as logos/mascots do the same.

by Steve Dragswolf


"Cleveland Indians Fan" CC image courtesy of Ming-yen Hsu on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

"Cleveland Indians Fan" CC image courtesy of Ming-yen Hsu on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Chief Wahoo,” the logo/mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, has been an iconic figurehead of sports ever since its creation in the mid-1950’s, and the focus of many American Indian activist’s efforts for change throughout the years. Many Americans see nothing wrong with the Indians caricature nor the Washington Redskins football team's American Indian caricature and name. However, both the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians’ logos/mascots create an atmosphere of derision and pain for many American Indians. 

Just as the blackface minstrel shows in the 1800’s characterized African Americans in ways that were untrue and hurtful, “Chief Wahoo” and other sports teams with “Indians” as logos/mascots do the same. There are many arguments for and against the caricatures, and many fights have occurred in public discourses surrounding them. However, the caricatures still stand. As a result, many sports fans across the country take it upon themselves to “honor” American Indians by dressing up as caricatures of “Indians” to root for their sports teams. Here I point out–after laying out a short history of the Cleveland Indians baseball team–that the modern-day sports teams with Indians as logos/mascots perpetuate the blackface minstrel shows of the 1800’s, with the difference being not only in the color of their caricatures, but also in that this modern-day minstrel show invites the public to be the main actors. I will also draw correlations between “Chief Wahoo” and the “Pickaninny” caricature to show how little difference there is between the two and how aggressions are being made towards American Indians in sports today that are similar to the aggressions made towards African-Americans during the peak of the blackface minstrel shows. 


A Brief History

Louis Sockalexis, Penobscot, Cleveland Spiders Outfielder 1897-99 (Public Domain)

Louis Sockalexis, Penobscot, Cleveland Spiders Outfielder 1897-99 (Public Domain)

Cleveland, as a baseball team, began on June 2, 1869 as the “Forest City’s” and is one of only four teams to have played exclusively in one city ever since its creation. As a result, Cleveland fans have a strong connection to tradition and the team itself. Cleveland went through several name changes in its early years, naming itself after star players a couple times–for example, calling themselves the Cleveland “Naps” in 1903 after their star player Napoleon Lajoie (“Indians”). It is part of Cleveland’s mythology that the same tradition continued when Lajoie left the team in 1914 and Cleveland looked to its fans for a new name. Fans chose “Indians” as the name and the Cleveland baseball team has maintained–until recently–that the name was instituted to honor another player, Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian. Sockalexis played for the Cleveland “Spiders” in the late 1800’s and is considered the first, if not one of the first, American Indians to play professional sports in the United States. He was a star player for one year and finished his second season in turmoil, playing only seven games (Elek). Sockalexis died in 1913, a couple years before Cleveland’s final name change to the “Indians.” 

Despite having the “Indians” name since 1915, the “Chief Wahoo” caricature has existed only since the mid-1950’s. Old Cleveland uniforms bore no such caricature logo. Instead, Cleveland’s players wore uniforms emblazoned with either “Cleveland” or “Indians” across the player’s chests–with an occasional cursive “I” or block “C” as a shortened brand. It was only after the creation of “Chief Wahoo” by seventeen-year-old Walter Goldbach in 1946 that many successive Cleveland uniforms placed the caricature on sleeves, breasts, and helmets. As a symbol, “Chief Wahoo” took up its mantle quickly and became one of the most iconic logos/mascots in sports. “The last thing on my mind was trying to offend anybody,” Goldbach, the now retired artist who created “Chief Wahoo,” said in an Associated Press article covering a decision in the late ‘90’s to potentially replace the Cleveland “Indians” baseball team logo (Affleck). Goldbach created an original caricature for Cleveland which consisted of a cartoonish American Indian head with a yellowish-brown skin tone, hook nose, wide grin with teeth showing, and a feather pointing upwards from the caricatures ponytail. The logo for the Cleveland baseball team reached its final form in 1951 after Goldbach polished his caricature and–most noticeably and iconically–replaced the yellowish-brown skin tone with that of a deep red (Ricca). The Cleveland Indians caricature–“Chief Wahoo”–was born and instantly became the image for Cleveland. Team memorabilia began bearing the logo/mascot along with the baseball uniforms and helmets of the players. Sports fans began purchasing merchandise bearing the logo/mascot of Cleveland én masse. They also began reddening their faces and taking part in becoming the logo. 


Redface Sports Fans and Black Face Minstrel Shows

Since its creation, “Chief Wahoo” has enjoyed decades of relatively little pushback from American citizens. It’s only within the last twenty or so years that a concentrated effort has been organized to change or rid Cleveland of its logo. That, of course, is not to say that there hasn’t been people–most specifically American Indians–who have seen the logo/mascot as “offensive” or in need of change preceding those twenty years. It’s only within the last couple decades that American Indian activists have focused their efforts and calls for change on specific mascots and specific teams; calls which have recently gained more traction as other people of color and white Americans join in rebuking the symbol. Although there has recently been protests and media coverage seeking a change of both the Cleveland Indians' and the Washington Redskins’ logos, mascots and names, the sports symbols still stand and are heavily defended on the basis of “honor” and “tradition” by fans of each team. 

...many African Americans–along with other people of color–today take part in the redface minstrel show to support their teams. Many of these African Americans who do take part in dressing “Indian” do not see the correlation between this cultural appropriation and their own old struggles with blackface.

By continuing to display these logos/mascots of both the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins, fans of the symbols are creating a modern-day minstrel show that invites the public to act as the primary characters. Many sports media outlets and fans perpetuate the revised minstrel theme–once reserved primarily as blackface–as they redden their faces, put on facial war paint, and wear headdresses to games. As Eric Lott, in his essay “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class,” quoted a blackface performer as saying, “I shall be rich in black fun,” many modern sports fans continue that cry proclaiming their dressing “Indian” as “fun” and “honoring” to American Indians. “Chief Wahoo,” as a caricature, is inviting to sports fans to become the caricature. Likewise, the Indian mascots of other sports teams are inviting to the public to become an “Indian.” However, their version of “Indian” is based on a caricature and not representative of reality. Therefore, many sports fans who enter arenas across the country dressed as “Indian” caricatures do no honoring of American Indians as much as they are trying to “honor” their team’s logo/mascot. These sports fans are only partaking in a public redface minstrel show that serves to further degrade the American and global consciousness of modern-day American Indians. 

As blackface minstrel shows were “struggles” over “the culture of black people,” sports logos/mascots maintain that same struggle over the culture of American Indians. Lott writes that the black culture “struggle took place largely among antebellum whites, of course, and it finally divested black people of control over elements of their culture and over their own cultural representation generally” (18). Similarly, these public sports minstrel shows collectively serve to mute the American Indian’s reality from a mainstream understanding and replaces it with a caricature as wildly insufficient and ridiculous as “Chief Wahoo.” A major difference in todays minstrel show is that, though “antebellum whites” were the main culprits of cultural appropriation in the 1800’s, many African Americans–along with other people of color–today take part in the redface minstrel show to support their teams. Many of these African Americans who do take part in dressing “Indian” do not see the correlation between this cultural appropriation and their own old struggles with blackface. The years have seemingly washed away the memories of those struggles. 

Sports redface minstrel shows continue that very same practice today; “carnivalizing” the American Indian race every time certain teams–professional or collegiate–enter their playing field.

Despite the forgetfulness, the same problems exist for American Indians as they did for African Americans when it comes to the blackface/redface minstrel shows. Lott noted, “minstrelsy was indeed in the business of staging or producing ‘race,’ that very enterprise also involved it in a carnivalizing of race” (21). Sports redface minstrel shows continue that very same practice today; “carnivalizing” the American Indian race every time certain teams–professional or collegiate–enter their playing field. As the main producers of the minstrel show, these sports teams call their actors to the stage who are more than willing to comply with “honoring” not the race that they may theoretically be named after as much as their logo/mascot. Since the logo/mascot is not representative of American Indian peoples today, its only purpose is to serve the sports teams’ “productions;” in that each team facilitates the image it wants to present to the public and allows–if not encourages–each fan to take part in the production. Just as with the “staging” of the blackface minstrel shows, many sports teams stage their own redface productions. 

When blackface minstrel shows were their most popular, many people saw nothing wrong with what was going on. “[T]he audiences involved in early minstrelsy were not universally derisive of African Americans or their culture” (Lott 16). However, the very act of the minstrel show served to disorient black citizens as much as the white citizens involved in the act. In searching for the “relationship of blackface to ‘blackness,’” many African Americans had to put up with the conflating of who they were–in their own distinct culture–and how non-blacks saw them (Lott 21). The blackface minstrel shows may have helped to give whites greater exposure to blacks, but their representation was often distorted through a general oafishness or stupidity for the audience to laugh at. Racist features and other stereotypes were enhanced to create an image of a black person that was not representative of any one black person. Their intelligence was dumbed down and ridiculed. The same was done to the black lifestyle of the time. African Americans were the butt of the joke and sometimes made to be parts of the joke. Any sort of greater exposure these blackface minstrel shows offered African Americans to the greater white American public is diminished because of the misrepresentation that occurred every time a minstrel show was performed. Similarly, the sports teams in America that have Indians as logos/mascots misrepresent the American Indian and serve only to ridicule any modern American Indian.


Chief Wahoo

Pickaninny Advertisement (Public Domain)

Pickaninny Advertisement (Public Domain)

In turning now to “Chief Wahoo” as the primary object of analysis, it’s important to understand the black caricature “Pickaninny” and today’s response to it. The “Pickaninny” caricature is similar to “Chief Wahoo” with little differences. “Pickaninny” features a black child–with skin so black as to be unnatural–holding a watermelon of sorts with bright eyes, a large smile with red lips and a bow sticking up from its head. This caricature was used in advertisements and books for decades before African Americans and others were able to reveal the inherent racism in such a derogatory symbol. Today, no media publication would dare to print or present such an image due to the backlash that would occur because of it. Pauline Strong notes in her essay, “The Mascot Slot: Cultural Citizenship, Political Correctness, and Pseudo-Indian Sports Symbols,” that Spike Lee, a famous African American director, made a satirical movie called Bamboozled in 2000 where the characters in the movie were involved in producing and performing a modern blackface minstrel show. In advertising for the movie, Lee tried to get an image advertised in the New York Times. This advertisement “featured an offensive image of a watermelon-eating ‘pickaninny,’ but it was modified after it was rejected for publication” Despite its strong stance against the heavily racist image of “Pickaninny,” the New York Times continued to publish pictures “of the equally offensive Chief Wahoo” (80). 

As stated earlier, “Chief Wahoo” (click to see image) is hardly unique from the “Pickaninny” caricature. “Chief Wahoo” has a skin tone that is unnaturally red to emphasize a stereotypical description of American Indians. There is no watermelon for “Chief Wahoo,” but his wide open grin imitates that of “Pickaninny.” In the back of his head, a lone feather sticks straight up identifying–if needed–his “Indianness” as much as the watermelon identified “Pickaninny” as Black and the bow identified “Pickaninny” as a child. Neither caricature invites the non-Black or non-Indian to better understand Blacks and Indians. Rather, the caricatures serve to enhance stereotypes as jokes; jokes that neither African Americans nor American Indians are a part of. One doesn’t even have to look at the images to understand that both caricatures are misrepresentations of their cultural counterparts. As much as the “Pickaninny” image fails to honor African Americans or clarify any misconceptions of Black people in non-Black minds, “Chief Wahoo” does the same for and against American Indians. Both names invite ridicule. Both names serve to place large swaths of people as the butt of a joke. 

If American Indians do not have a say over their cultural identity–but that identity is formed by sports teams and other forms of misrepresentation–then American Indians are not full citizens of the country. American Indians can not define themselves, but have to let the majority race do it for them. This is, in and of itself, oppression.

Both "Pickaninny" and "Chief Wahoo" caricatures work to create “a significant obstacle to full participatory citizenship” as Strong notes (79). In creating these caricatures and in preserving these caricatures, the majority race devalues the “other.” That is to say the majority race sees itself as the one of importance; that “other” races do not and should not have a say in what they deem to be offensive or harmful to their communities. African Americans have fought the “Pickaninny” caricature and won. The American Indian is still caught up in a struggle over “Chief Wahoo.” This time, however, many African Americans are themselves fans of the Indian’s “Pickaninny” representation, which makes the fight harder. “Political correctness,” as a term continually floats as a silencer towards people fighting for change. Sports fans who love their logos/mascots of American Indians often hide behind the straw man argument of “political correctness” at any sort of push for change in a logo or mascot. So any sort of discussion over changing the representation of “Chief Wahoo” or any other American Indian logo/mascot is deemed “politically correct” babble just so people don’t have to engage in the real arguments. 

Yet, as we have seen in this essay, there is much to be discussed. Strong writes, “those who dismiss opposition to Indian mascots and logos as ‘political correctness’ unintentionally reveal the distinctive form of ‘cultural citizenship’ allocated in the United States to Native Americans” (79). American Indians are effectively benched on the sidelines when it comes to the majority race choosing how they are to “be” in the United States. If American Indians do not have a say over their cultural identity–but that identity is formed by sports teams and other forms of misrepresentation–then American Indians are not full citizens of the country. American Indians can not define themselves, but have to let the majority race do it for them. This is, in and of itself, oppression. 


Continuing the Conversation

In 2014, a group of American Indians protested outside of a Cleveland Indians game against the Minnesota Twins. Robert Roche, a Chiricahua Apache, was approached by Pedro Rodriguez, a non-Indian with his face painted red; a wide toothy grin was also painted on his face. He had a homemade headdress with an array of feathers bearing Cleveland’s colors and wore a white sweater airbrushed with the “Chief Wahoo” caricature and name on the back and “Fear the Chief” on the front, along with many other miscellaneous Cleveland baseball symbols and words. The Cleveland fan was adamant that he was not racist, a fact that is believable in that he doesn’t feel what he is doing is racist. Instead, he said that how he was dressed was “all about baseball” (Pattakos). Tradition, as an argument, came up. Rodriguez was shown a picture of “Chief Wahoo” next to a “blackfaced lawn jockey drawn in the same style” and was then asked if he–Rodriguez–would ever dress up in blackface to a sports event. Rodriguez answered “no” and had nothing to say about why not except that “he was an Indians fan.”

...the only honoring a sports teams’ fans do is for the sports team itself and the logo/mascot it embodies.

Thousands of sports fans plead ignorance in their furthering of the redface minstrel show. To them, like it was to Rodriguez, they are simply taking part in honoring their sports teams. What they cannot see, though, is the harm they are inflicting on the people they are subjecting. What’s worse is that many other people of color join in on a weekly basis to further degrade American Indians by dressing up as an “Indian.” American Indians as logos/mascots are reduced to base characteristics of “savages,” “warriors,” etc. In return, opposing sports teams latch on to the “Indian” theme by furthering to degrade American Indians as they use American Indian history as “trash talk”–for example, high schools creating banners which say, "Get ready to leave in a trail of tears, Round 2.” If many U.S. citizens can see the racism inherent in a “Pickaninny” caricature, they should also be able to see the racism inherent in “Chief Wahoo.” The perpetuation of the minstrel production by sports teams across this country serves to show the fight against American Indian logos/mascots is needed in order for American Indians to become full “citizens” of the country in which they live. As it currently stands, American Indians are subjected to a sub-citizen status in that other races–other people groups–are intent on defining who American Indians are without letting American Indians define themselves. As a result, we can see the act of oppression that many in the U.S. are still inflicting on American Indians. Tradition is a big selling point for sports teams’ fans, and tradition is solely what they are honoring. As it’s been pointed out, the only honoring a sports teams’ fans do is for the sports team itself and the logo/mascot it embodies. 

Today, blackface is morally repugnant but redface isn’t. Caricatures of other races, such as the “Pickaninny” caricature, are derided as unpublishable, yet “Chief Wahoo” still exists in publishable form. The blackface minstrel show is obsolete, but the redface sports minstrel show occurs every week in some form or fashion. This minstrel show appears in households, bars, and stadiums across the country during many games–to say nothing of Thanksgiving and Halloween. The fight for proper representation and true “citizenship” continues for American Indians. In continuing the conversation, the redface minstrel shows will be rendered obsolete just as the blackface minstrel shows were. 


Works Cited

  • Affleck, John. "Owner To Decide Fate of Chief Wahoo." Associated Press, 28 May 1999. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
  • Elek, Jason. "First Cleveland Indian a Domer First." Notre Dame Magazine, 2000-1. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
  • "Indians History Overview." Cleveland Indians. Indians.com, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. PDF. 
  • Pattakos, Peter. "Redface Has Another Big Day at the Ballpark in Cleveland." Cleveland Frowns. N.p., 06 Apr. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
  • Ricca, Brad. "The Secret History of Chief Wahoo." BeltMag. Belt Magazine, 19 June 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. 
  • Strong, Pauline Turner. "The Mascot Slot: Cultural Citizenship, Political Correctness, and Pseudo-Indian Sports Symbols." Journal of Sport & Social Issues 28.1 (2004): 79-87. Web.