The Cleveland Indians hope to win their first World Series since 1948 this fall. Many members of the Penobscot Nation – from whence the team’s namesake player came – hope it will be the baseball team’s last season with the controversial “Chief Wahoo” logo.

Cleveland’s team is called the Indians because of Louis Sockalexis, a native of the Penobscots’ Indian Island reservation in Maine and a gifted athlete who was the first recognized Native American to play in the major leagues when he joined the team in 1897. He died 16 years later at age 42 in a logging accident in northern Maine, his career cut short by alcoholism and hampered by racist jeers from fans and insulting dispatches from sportswriters, who never tired of references to scalping, warpaths, firewater and General Custer.

Louis Sockalexis 1912 photo postcard

Louis Sockalexis 1912 photo postcard

“The legacy is something that Sockalexis left, as far as I’m concerned,” Penobscot tribal elder and council member Donna Loring says of the team’s nickname. “But the logo is very demeaning, and it’s insulting.”

The Penobscot Nation petitioned the team to stop using its “Chief Wahoo” mascot – a cartoonish red-skinned Indian with an exaggerated nose, toothy grin and a warrior’s feather – in 2000. The team has never responded. In a 2007 interview with the Portland Press Herald, the team’s vice president for public relations, Bob DiBiasio, said the team would not open a dialogue with the tribe on the issue.

“We ask, if there is no intent to demean, can it be demeaning?” said DiBiasio, who still holds the position. “We have no intent to demean.”

The team did not respond to an interview request for this story.



“We had asked that they entertain a conversation about the image, not the name ‘Indians,’ because we felt at the time that asking them to drop the name would have been a confusing topic,” recalls former Penobscot chief Barry Dana. “I don’t know if Louis would have felt honored by the name or if he’d have been like: ‘You guys treated me like (expletive) most of the time.’ ” Current Penobscot chief Kirk Francis could not be reached for comment.

On Wednesday, Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, said he plans to meet with Indians owner Paul Dolan after the World Series to discuss the team’s continued use of the Chief Wahoo logo.

Native American Louis Sockalexis endured jeers, war whoops and other derision in the years he played for the Cleveland Spiders. Courtesy of Penobscot Nation

Native American Louis Sockalexis endured jeers, war whoops and other derision in the years he played for the Cleveland Spiders. Photo courtesy Penobscot Nation

Although the team no longer uses the caricature of a Native American as its primary logo, it remains on uniforms, caps and fan attire. It’s getting national exposure as Cleveland plays the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, which is scheduled to resume Friday night in Chicago tied at one game apiece.

Sockalexis batted .338, stole 16 bases and drove in 42 runs in 66 games his first season with what was then the Cleveland Spiders. But crowds jeered him with “war whoops, yells of derision (and) certain ‘familiarities’ calculated to disconcert the player,” Sporting Life reported. “But the big red man of (coach) Tibeau’s team is not disturbed by these vehement and often grossly discourteous demonstrations.”

“Had I cared, they would have driven me out of the business long ago,” Sockalexis told the Milwaukee Journal in 1898. “I got it from the very first day I played.”



Sportswriters didn’t treat him much better. “Every racist and horrible cliché you can think of was coming out of their pens,” says Ed Rice, an adjunct professor at the New England School of Communications and author of “Baseball’s First Indian,” a 2003 biography of Sockalexis. “They were playing off the idea that they have a Barnum & Bailey Circus Act, and when they started calling the team the Indians, it was not the least bit respectful.”

The nicknames of 19th century teams were informal, and came and went with the players they were often named for. Sockalexis was such a sensation when he joined the team in 1897 that it was immediately rechristened the “Indians.” Later, as his career faltered and he was sent to the minors, the club went by a variety of names, including the Broncos, the Naps (after star second baseman Napoleon Lajoie) and even the Molly McGuires (after manager James McGuire).

But in 1914, the team’s owner assembled a group of Cleveland sportswriters to come up with a new name. They chose “Indians,” in part as a rejoinder to the then-successful Boston Braves, in part in homage to the Sockalexis connection.

“Sockalexis so outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer explained at the time. “It was an honorable name, and while it stuck, the team made an excellent record. It has now been decided to revive this name.”



Rice, who has campaigned against the Chief Wahoo logo, says there’s no doubt about the Sockalexis link to the team. “He inspired the nickname. It’s whether it was done ‘in his honor,’ as the team sometimes says, that we should all have a big problem with,” Rice says.

The Chief Wahoo logo appears on the cap and jersey of Cleveland relief pitcher Bryan Shaw. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

The Chief Wahoo logo appears on the cap and jersey of Cleveland relief pitcher Bryan Shaw. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

The logo was introduced in 1946, with the cartoon face’s skin color changed from yellow to red in 1950. It was not intended to represent Sockalexis himself. The logo was added to the team’s hats in 1986, and the character has been sold on blankets and as a bobblehead.

Chief Wahoo has been the subject of annual in-stadium protests by Native Americans since 1973, and in 2009 the Maine Legislature passed a Penobscot-sponsored resolution calling on the team to “immediately drop the use of the mascot.” In a 2013 report, the National Congress of American Indians denounced Cleveland and other professional sports teams for continuing “to profit from harmful stereotypes originated during a time when white superiority and segregation were commonplace.”

Dana, the former Penobscot chief, says he personally wishes Cleveland fans and sportscasters would drop the Native American kitsch.

“The other night I’m listening to the World Series as a game of baseball, but I have to listen to the commentators refer to the team as the Indians or The Tribe,” he says. “There are drums playing in the background, and I think: What a freaking circus!”

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