The use of Native Americans for team names and insignias has been the focus of protests for many years. Most recently, those demonstrations have made their way to the courts....as activists sought to prohibit the use of Native Americans icons in professional and amateur sports. 90.3's Yolanda Perdomo reports on the continuing controversy and what people on both sides of the issue are doing to address it.
Yolanda Perdomo- At this time last year, fans going to Jacobs Field on Opening Day at heard cheers and jeers. Cheers to welcome the home team, and jeers from protesters pointing to Chief Wahoo, the team's red faced grinning logo. Demonstrators gathered around a metal drum as they burned a wooden Wahoo in effigy.
"You're going to white man's hell. Whooooo! Sayonara Wahoo. Sayonara racism. Sayonara Jacobs....."
YP- The protests took place right outside the west gate of Jacobs Field. But this year, the landlords, the Gateway Economic Development Corporation, got a federal court to ban the protests. They argued that while the ballpark was built in part with tax payer dollars, it was not an area for the purposes of free speech. That's just the most recent attempt in court to consider whether using a Native American name or symbol constitutes a racist or offensive action by a sports organization. There are 5 professional athletic teams and more than 50 colleges and universities that use Native American monikers. They include Southeastern Oklahoma State University, home of the Savages, and Lewis Clark State College in Idaho, home of the Warriors. Ellen Storowski, an associate professor of sport sociology at Ithaca College, says using Native people as mascots dates back hundreds of years.
Ellen Storowski- Primitive peoples, ethnic peoples, dark skinned peoples, were used as a form of advertising. As a means of creating distance between Europeans, colonial folks......and it was a way for them to capture those images and say, well, we're the conquerors.... And also create distance. We can actually own these people to the point of owning them in terms of their own images
YP- And that's precisely why Vernon Belcouert says these dishonor Native Americans. He's an Ojibway Indian and president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. Belcouert blames the nation's schools for the lack of knowledge about Native American culture.
Vernon Belcouert- We're almost nonexistent in America's history books. Other than being project as a proud and noble savage up on the hill. Looked at more romantically and mystically than as real people. This translates to a condition where America is for the most part totally ignorant, if not scholastically retarded when it comes to knowing anything about indigenous culture.
Bob Dibiasioy- We understand the incredible sensitivities in this issue.....
YP- Bob Dibiasio is the vice president of public relations for the Cleveland Indians baseball team.
BD- We have sort of covered both angles. We've come out into the market and guaranteed a certain amount of megawatt hours for a certain price and, at the same time, we have given our customers a shopping credit that nearly assures that they will find savings.
When you have a name like Indians and a logo that we have, there's obvious sensitivities involved. We never humanize it, which in the sense we never put a body on it. It never speaks in the sense of being animated. So we try to do what we can, again, understanding the sensitivities involved, not to have people think it's a representation of a group of people
YP- If its a very sensitive issue to the organization, why does it continue to use this logo on most of its merchandise?
BD- Mostly because they're's a large, large, large number of people who embrace it. And embrace it with a passion.
YP- Last year, that passion brought in more than 17 million dollars in sales of team merchandise. Meanwhile, court battles continue over the use of Native American names and images. Last year, the US Patent and Trademark court canceled registered trademarks of the Washington Redskins football team. Ruling that it was disparaging to Native Americans. While the action doesn't stop the team from using the name and logo, it could lose millions in revenue. But some argue that if a team does change it's name, colors, or logo, that can generate even more revenue, as fans update their sports wardrobe. For those fighting Native American monikers, there has been some success. Ohio's Miami University changed its name from the Redmen to the Redhawks. But in Cleveland, such a change appears to be an uphill effort.
Last month, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission dismissed charges that Chief Wahoo's presence at baseball games is a racist symbol.....even though a number of Indians fans do admit that the Chief Wahoo logo does make them uncomfortable. In Cleveland, Yolanda Perdomo 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.