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Removing Chief Wahoo only a small step, Bemidji-area American Indian leaders say

BEMIDJI, Minn.—The Cleveland Indians baseball team plans to remove the toothy, red-faced Chief Wahoo logo from their uniforms next year, a decision Bemidji-area American Indian leaders say is a step in the right direction that still falls short.

"It's good, but that's not enough." said Darrell Seki Sr., Red Lake Nation's chairman and a Minnesota Twins fan, who noted that the team still plans to sell merchandise with the controversial logo. (The team will lose the trademark if it stops selling Chief Wahoo gear).

Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and prominent American Indian author and academic, characterized the removal as a half measure.

"Full measure would be not calling the team the 'Indians,' and then nobody would be playing Halloween and dressing up however," Treuer said. Sports teams should get rid of human mascots in general, he said, and those that use American Indian imagery can make a mockery of sacred symbols and pave the way for tomahawk chops from home fans or "scalp the Indians" slogans from opposing ones.

Cleveland is set to host Major League Baseball's All-Star game in 2019, the first year they'll play without the logo on their uniforms. The Indians made a rare World Series appearance in 2016, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said it shone a spotlight on the team and logo. In recent years, Cleveland players have worn uniforms with a blocky letter "C" on their caps in place of Chief Wahoo, but the grinning mascot remained on their sleeves.

The baseball team's decision isn't the first of its kind. In 2012, the University of North Dakota dropped its "Fighting Sioux" nickname, and numerous other college teams have changed monikers and mascots the past two decades. The NCAA has imposed sanctions on teams that continue to use American Indian iconography, but teams like the Florida State Seminoles kept the name and imagery after local tribal leaders approved of the use.

The Indians announced the change on Monday. On Tuesday, Jan. 30, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said not to expect the Washington Redskins football team to change their name, pointing to a 2016 Washington Post poll that indicates a majority of American Indians aren't bothered by it. (Critics say the poll's methodology is flawed.) The team's owner said he'll never change the name.

Bill Blackwell Jr., a colleague of Treuer's at BSU who heads the school's American Indian Resource Center, said he and his son travel to see a different Major League Baseball park every summer, and that he was dreading a potential trip to Cleveland. There, a longtime fan bangs a drum called "Big Chief Boom-Boom" at nearly every home game and others paint their faces to look like Wahoo or wear large feathered headdresses.

"That's hard to explain to a young child, why these things that are being taught as sacred items of ours or different things are being almost mocked at times," Blackwell said.

Faron Jackson Sr., the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's chairman, said he tried to be open-minded about the teams' intentions not to offend American Indians, but was nonetheless excited to hear the logo would be removed from the Cleveland uniforms.

"We're very honored and pleased they're going down that road," Jackson said. "That's a good starting point."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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