What’s in a name

Friday the Cleveland Indians released a statement regarding the team name:

We are committed to making a positive impact in our community and embrace our responsibility to advance social justice and equality. Our organization fully recognizes our team name is among the most visible ways in which we connect with the community.

We have had ongoing discussion organizationally on these issues. The recent social unrest in our community and our country has only underscored the need for us to keep improving as an organization on issues of social justice.

With that in mind, we are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.

While the focus of the baseball world shifts to the excitement of an unprecedented 2020 season, we recognize our unique place in the community and are committed to listening, learning, and acting in the manner that can best unite and inspire our city and all those who support our team.

The big takeaways I got from the statement are:

  • The organization had been discussing the possibility of a name change internally even before the events of the past months. They probably have been taking place since at least the decision to remove Chief Wahoo in 2018.
  • However, because of the recent social unrest, the team is now making public this fact, and is eliciting feedback from the fan base and other relevant groups on the future of the team name.

Undoubtedly this is a reaction to the Washington Redskins announcing that they would “undergo a thorough review of the team’s name” earlier in the day. In today’s fast-moving, social media-dominated culture, they didn’t want to be the last team with an American Indian-themed name to make a statement.

Commentary

I want to approach this section by asking and then answering questions based on arguments that I’ve seen made in response to this news that cuts to the heart of the controversy. Feel free to use these questions to come to your own conclusions, or perhaps to even modify your existing ones.

Question 1: Is the name Indians objectionable to those it describes?

To answer the question, I want to look at how the name was used in the past, and how it is used today. Meanings of words and symbols change over time, and even those who live in the same era will interpret them differently. Because the name is of a group of people, it is also important to understand what they call themselves.

The name Indians was coined at the time that Europeans reached the Americas. Early explorers, starting with Columbus, mistook the peoples they found in there for Indians because they thought they had landed in the East Indies. In fact, Columbus had underestimated the size of the planet, and had arrived at a completely different continent. Even so, the name stuck, and only in recent years has it been challenged. Before Europeans arrived, there was no agreed-upon name to describe the native peoples of the land that eventually became the United States, and so while the name may be both inaccurate and confusing (especially to those native to the country of India), it’s still in common use today in the United States, by both the American government (Bureau of Indian Affairs, to use one example) and the native peoples themselves.

This video by CPG Grey goes into more detail on the naming convention, based on interviews he conducted at many American Indian reservations.

In the future, we might use a different name (“Native Americans” is the current challenger, though it has its own problems, as mentioned in the above video), but right now “American Indians” or “Indians” is the most commonly-used term by both outsiders and the people it describes.

So on that basis, it is difficult to call the name itself objectionable to American Indians or to the overall population of this country. The Washington Redskins fail question #1, but the Cleveland Indians do not.

Question 2a: Is the name unacceptable because it was associated with the Chief Wahoo logo for a large portion of the team’s history?

Now we are passing from the the land of objective definitions to the realm of opinion.

Chief Wahoo was the team’s primary logo from 1947 to 2019, while the team has been named the Indians since 1915. That’s 72 out of the 105 years the team has been known as the Indians. In my opinion the logo, being a caricature (and not a benign one) of an American Indian, was objectionable, and was glad that the team at first de-emphasized it, then later removed it entirely. However I do not think that the team name and logo are inextricably linked. The franchise had Indian-themed logos in the decades before Chief Wahoo that were not caricatures. Theoretically they could come up with an Indian-centric logo again, perhaps with consultation from American Indian groups, which would alleviate some of the criticisms, but not all of them.

Question 2b: Should (or could) the Indians maintain the name without an Indian-themed logo?

This is a more practical question.

Since dropping Chief Wahoo, the team has defaulted to using the “block C” as their primary logo, which is a callback to the early days of their franchise, an era in which teams generally used a stylized letter or letters (using the first letter(s) of their home city) as their logo. Some franchises never went away from this type of logo; the Detroit Tigers have used the “Olde English D” as one of their primary logos since practically the beginning. Many other clubs, even if their logos are different, have stuck with simple letters on their caps, and as such those letters (NY for New York, B for Boston, LA for Los Angeles, etc), while simple, are nonetheless recognizable because they’ve been associated with the team for in some cases over a century. So it’s possible for the Indians to remain the Indians if they just emphasize the “Cleveland” part of their name, but that might the worst of both worlds for the team, in that one portion of your fanbase dislikes the name, and another dislikes the logo (the “block C” has gotten at best mixed acceptance by fans, even by those that didn’t like Chief Wahoo).

Question 3a: Is the team name objectionable because American Indians were conquered, then mistreated by first by the European empires and later by the United States, and because this name is being used by an American organization?

The usage of names and depictions of other peoples, especially those that have been wronged in the past, have become moral issues, as the usage of names and artwork depicting those people is being seen as a continuation of that wrong. If we can’t go back in time to change history, the argument goes, the least we can do is to distance ourselves from that past, and that means removing any depiction of a wronged group of people, no matter how neutral it might be and under what context that depiction is made.

I think this is an overly broad argument (though I have seen it being made) that leads to many downstream consequences that even its proponents might not want to see realized (such as the renaming of American states), so rather than trying to turn it into a straw man, let me strengthen it:

Question 3b: Is the team name objectionable because the American Indians were conquered, then mistreated by first by the European empires and later by the United States, and because this name is being used as a brand name by an American company?

This is the essence of the best argument I’ve seen in favor of the team changing its name, and brings into the discussion the context in which the name is used, something that can serve as a limiting principle (otherwise there is no foreseeable end to what is objectionable given how many of our words and place names derive from American Indian tribes and languages).

This is an argument I have sympathy for, though it’s a tepid sympathy. Brand names should be almost universally viewed as positive, if not inoffensive, otherwise a business is potentially alienating customers by using it. The bar is going to be (and should be) lower to change a brand name than it would be if we were talking about removing a word from common usage or changing the name of state or a city. If there’s enough of the fan base that wants a name change, then the business should at least seriously discuss it.

That said, I would be interested in learning what the American Indian people think about the team name before making any final decision. Is it seen as positive, negative, or ambivalent? Do they feel strongly about the name either way?

Question 4: Under what circumstances (if any) would you approve of the team keeping its name?

Consulting American Indians and the team’s fan base would help determine not only what objections there are to the team name, but also determine if there is a way to keep the name. Perhaps honoring the history of American Indians and raising awareness of the obstacles that many still face today would do more good than changing the name would.


Thank you for sticking around this long. I hope the question-and-answer format helps you as much as it did me when thinking through this contentious and complex topic. If you’re looking for “on-field baseball” content, I’m planning on returning to that on a semi-regular basis as summer training heats up, along with the other subjects I’ve been dabbling in.

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