Friday, September 19, 2008

Chief Wahoo blow-up!

Terry Provost, a person I respect and admire, posted the below on the clevelandpoetics listserv in response to Ray McNiece's video clip on SportsChannel (check out a few entries down.) Many people have strong opinions on this. How would you answer the questions that Terry poses at the end of his comments?

"For my part, when I see Chief Wahoo, I do not just see a racist caricature and a malignant celebration of a history of US genocide against native Americans, but, since he is overwhelmingly displayed as a head detached from a body, I see a decapitated racist caricature.

There is nothing I can do to separate that image from the team it represents, at least in my perception.

Anything that promotes that team, endorses an attitude of racism, and a gleeful indifference to genocide.

I therefore cannot join the celebration of any commercial however well done, by anyone, especially anyone who I would consider a part of my community (and yes I do consider Ray to be a good guy, and a member of my community.)

In fact, the better the ad, the worse, a la Leni Riefenstahl (did she really only die in 2003?)

In fact, according to the historian John Toland, Hitler based his ideas for the Holocaust on the American extermination of the native population (how Riefenstahl can you get?)

I've always thought that one of the best things about this list serve is people¢s readiness to celebrate the success of others. Whereas, yes, I can see a Debbie Downer aspect to saying what I have, I can also see a real problem with boosterism.

To maybe make this non-personal I suggest the following 3 questions:

1. Is Chief Wahoo a racist caricature?

2. Is it possible to separate Chief Wahoo from the Cleveland Indians?

3. What is the right attitude that a poet, artist, or any sentient human being should have towards the Wahoo/Indians complex?

I expect it makes sense to continue this conversation, if at all, at the clevelandpoetics blog rather than the list serve. But since the congratulations went out on the list serve, it seems appropriate that the demurral should as well."


Anonymous said...

To answer the questions in the order posed, imo:

1. Only if the swastika or Al Jolson's black face is *offensive*.

2. Anything is *possible*; however, the question is: is it *probable*.

3. As in anything else, until one is so *aware*, one contributes by *denial/unawareness*.

Anna Ruiz

"A few a guilty but we are all responsible." ~ Brazilian Bishop Don Helder Camara

Anonymous said...

How about some info on the Native A. organizations, what they say and what type of volunteers/assistance they would like. Last year in Berea, a seminar on N.A. ended with a protest march to the baseball Oct there will also be events...

Terry Provost said...

I’m glad to hear that Chief Wahoo is off the Indians’ caps; as you might imagine, I didn’t know that because I do not watch the games.

As far as I know, and I am not an expert on such things, Native Americans tend to regard the term “Indian” as degrading, the term of colonizers for the colonized. A negative epithet.

Now suppose the Cleveland Indians changed their name tomorrow to a similarly negative epithet about black people. Suppose they decked their uniforms in a equivalently racist caricature of black people, i.e. equivalent to Chief Wahoo.

I don’t think anyone I know would go to any of that baseball team’s games. I don’t think anyone would watch them on TV.

Suppose the equivalent thing for Jewish people.

Again, I don’t think anyone I know would go to any of that team’s games.

Elementary moral consistency demands that we behave in the same way in responding to the caricature of Native Americans as to any other historically oppressed group.

It is worth thinking about why it is possible to caricature Native Americans in a world where it isn’t possible to caricature black people, or Jewish people.

African Americans and Jewish Americans are politically organized and would not tolerate this.

But, of similar importance, people from the general community recognize the historical legacy of oppression of these groups. They recognize that any permissiveness in our attitudes to the racist depiction of these groups is a step back towards a horrible past we do not want to in any way repeat.

So why then don’t people express similar outrage about Chief Wahoo and the Cleveland Indians?

Again, it seems to me, the genocide of Native Americans was so complete, that there is very little organized Native American political power.

This is all the more reason that people from the general community should be particularly hesitant to accept their racist caricature.

On the rare occasion when I see an Indians’ at-bat on TV, I always see a Chief Wahoo on the players’ sleeves. I always see a Chief Wahoo on the graphic announcing the player. Chief Wahoo is the symbol which the team’s ownership uses to represent the team. Is it really that far of a stretch to reject the team because you reject the racist symbol they use to identify themselves?


Anonymous said...

Allow me to be a contrarian and venture that Chief Wahoo is a good thing because it continues to point to something much deeper in the nation’s subconscious.

The difference between African-Americans (who were brought to this country against their will as forced labor) and Jewish-Americans (who emigrated willfully and for reasons of European persecution) and Native Americans is origin. When the European settlers first came here, in order for them to continue to expand westward, they had to overtake and violently extinguish the natives. This is no different than any other country’s origins. So there is a primal violence that is not present in either of these other two peoples.

You could compare it with the Roman conquest of the native Etruscans and the foundation myth of Rome. It isn’t surprising to learn that in Virgil’s myth, the founding of Rome is part of a divine right, a celestial ordering that favors the Romans. (Which, by the way, sounds a lot like Manifest Destiny and God’s smiling on America as a unique and special creation divinely favored.)

Yet beneath the myth of specialness and divine destiny is the real history of original violence, which can’t be loudly proclaimed because it undercuts the story of the righteousness and morality of the country’s uniqueness, but can never be entirely forgotten either. And so it takes it place in the nation’s unconscious in shame and guilt.

In Roman mythology, the presence of the original violence against the native inhabitants is present and is a reminder of the barbarity that is the flip side of civilization. One of the symbols for the vanquished Etruscans was the wolf, which was both feared and revered at the same time.

And this may be how Chief Wahoo is a good thing. Because the very existence of a Native American, however much of a caricature, is a reminder of the country’s bloody and violent origins and of the original sin of founding a new nation. That’s why you’d never see Black or Jewish mascots because Wahoo isn’t about making fun of a group of people or even necessarily being racist, but has to do with this originary violence and a mythical way of attoning for it by “honoring” Native Americans.

My 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

I care very little about pro sports anymore. I think there are a lot better things to which we can devote our time, energy, devotion and resources. But one of these better things is poetry. And as much distaste as I have for this nation's pro sports idolization and characters like the racist Chief Wahoo, I enthusiastically support the propagation of poetry and am excited to learn that there is an oasis of poetry in a vast desert like sports television. Does this make me complicit with the killing of Native Americans? I'm not so sure, though perhaps my own Native American ancestors would disagree. I don't go to Tribe games or wear "Indians" memorabilia. I skip the games but enjoy the poetry ads. Does this make me complicit in the slightest degree? Perhaps....

In a sense, we're all complicit in killing and profiting from others' killing. That is, all of us who pay taxes to the Federal Government or accepted Bush's economic stimulus checks. All of us who drive cars or use electricity or vote or don't vote. All of us who stay in this country our forefathers stole from the Native Americans - and from the Mexicans - and then built on the backs of Africans and others. Chief Wahoo is racist. Ray's poem is beautiful. And there are a whole lot of statements between those extremes that I could make and still speak truth. I think everything's a matter of degrees. And I find it ironic that while we rage against the injustices perpetrated on Native Americans and others, we continue to live on land stolen from them, eat produce harvested from land stolen from them, drive on roads paved across land that was stolen from them, burn coal and oil derived from land stolen from them, et cetera, ad infinitum. I don't see any of us vacating the land to give it back to its rightful "owners."

What's the solution? I don't have a clue. We can't all just leave the USA and take someone else's land.

In a way, all we who live in this "land of the free" are complicit in the atrocities that bequeathed us this land. I'm just not sure how much good it does the Native Americans or anyone else to throw stones at poets and the propagators of poetry. Then again, if all we who are living on (and living off) this stolen land throw enough stones at each other we'll all die and the Native Americans can have their land back. Maybe that would be the most just outcome after all. I just hope folks'll through stones at the white half of me without harming the Native half.

Anonymous said...

I meant THROW, not THROUGH, in that last sentence.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Actually, I don't care one way or another. I find it mildly amusing to drive through Arizona, and stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and see the guy behind the counter wearing a Cleveland Indians cap, but by "mildly" I mean, an amusement value of 1 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Keep the Yahoo, dump the Yahoo, change the team's name to "Cleveland Cthulu Clan"-- it's all the same to me.

Terry Provost said...


I disagree with a lot of what you have to say, but I respect the fact that you are trying to be very thoughtful about this. I don’t want to get bogged down in dissecting what you have said, but I will give you a for-instance. Take your comment:

“When the European settlers first came here, in order for them to continue to expand westward, they had to overtake and violently extinguish the natives.”

Where was it, and by whom, foreordained that Europeans had “to continue to expand westward?”

We could spend forever debating my specific objections, and your specific responses, but I suggest it would be more profitable to skip to a more general level.

It seems to me the general tone of your contrarianism is too fatalistic.

You seem to be saying that people must remain unconscious of primal violence and related genocide.

But somehow you are aware of it. I am aware of it. Why must people remain unaware of it? Are we that special?

Also, you suggest that all nations have originated in genocidal violence, and that this is in some sense necessary. These are testable assertions about the real world.

I’ve never heard of the origin of Switzerland through primal violence and genocide. Perhaps that is how Switzerland originated, but I’ve never heard of it.

Also, consider the EU. Did the EU originate in primal violence, or the conscious decision to transcend primal violence?

Also, consider the case of Hitler. He said it was the manifest destiny of Germans to conquer and dominate Europe. That Jews were people who needed to be eliminated in order to make lebensraum for his master race. But many people disagreed, and in the end he lost. Hitler’s victory wasn’t inevitable. The end of Jewry wasn’t inevitable.

History is made by real people making real choices and taking real actions. These actions determine its outcome. We can say that the past is inevitable, and in a way that is true. But at the time, the outcome was determined by, among other things, human actions.

Another case: the Iraq War. It is pretty widely conceded that this was “a war of choice.” But as we get farther and farther beyond it, it may seem as inevitable as Manifest Destiny.

Human actions change or constitute history. Human actions can make people conscious of America’s traditions of racist imperial violence. An important role of intellectuals is to help in this pursuit. It is not, however, an appropriate role for intellectuals to aid in a nations’s continuing unconsciousness of racist imperial traditions by “honoring” Chief Wahoo.


Anonymous said...

I think everything is bogged down in controversy, or can be. I think we are all murderers to the extent that we use gasoline, for instance.

But I refuse to condemn US citizens. It's just our turn at being the bad people. Everyone has this potential: look at the renewed racism in Europe.

And I refuse to act fearful about offending someone in every step I take. I understand your morality, Terry, and sympathize largely with it. You have changed my mind on a number of issues and I admire you greatly.

But I think acts of conscience are best set by example and turned inwards. It's a matter of balance. Promoting Cleveland Poetry seems more important to me than the awful racist logo. I hate the logo, but I think there's such a thing as civic pride and making poetry a part of the community. And I think poets deserve to be paid well, to! I don't know if its possible to be paid well without selling out on some level, but that's just some tough reality.

Perhaps we can petition the Indians to remove the logo and change their name? I know you and Daniel and Ray have been active in this effort.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Terry.

My intent was never to “aid in a nation’s continuing unconsciousness of racist imperial traditions”, nor to justify “honoring” Chief Wahoo (which is why I deliberately put “honoring” in quotes to call into question this common understanding of the persistence of the mascot.)

The thrust of my comments was to try and explain (partly to myself as well) how it is and why it is that Native Americans have been used and continue to be used as mascots while other groups are not. After all, you raised the question yourself of why we’d never see Jewish-American or African-American caricatures like that and I was looking for an explanation for that fact.

As for most of your other comments, I don’t disagree with you for the most part. Perhaps the tone of my contrarianism is too fatalistic. But I don’t think you can ignore the human tendency towards massive stupidity and violence. Some might call me a pessimist when it comes to human history and potential, but for me, the ruins of the 20th century are enough to convince me that we’ve got a long way to go.

And you’re right that my suggestion that all nations are founded on such originary violence may not be true. It certainly is the case that the origins can be empirically determined, but even then how accurately so? True, I was generalizing, and that usually gets you in trouble anyway. At least we can agree that most empires start in this way. The case of Switzerland is interesting.

As for the case of the EU, I think yes and no. With close to 20 million deaths in WWI and at least that much in WWII, I think that this unprecedented violence and destruction was the origin of the EU. It was precisely because of the horrible toll that the idea for the EU finally prevailed.

I think this has been a great discussion and it’s certainly opened my eyes. And I’d be up to continuing it over a beer at the Lit or Brew Kettle some night…


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau