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It was a positive, on its own, that the NFL’s Washington franchise changed their name from one with a slur against Native Americans to the temporary “Washington Football Team.” There was also a potential trickle-down effect to look forward to, though, as, if even the franchise run by Dan Snyder could change their name and the culture of racism and appropriation that swirled around it, then it should be motivating for others with comparatively innocuous names like the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Indians to do something about their own issues.
That appears to be what has happened now, as Kansas City took steps in August to remove some racist elements from their stadium and game environment, and now we’ve got Cleveland finally admitting that it’s time to find a new name for their team. According to the New York Times, Cleveland will still retain its current name in 2021, but could shift away from it as early as the 2022 season. No other details are known at this point, as the team hasn’t announced their intentions yet, but are expected to sometime this week.
It’s possible that we’ve got something like Cleveland Baseball Club coming to us for 2021 as well, with the team moving forward in the same way Washington is, with figuring out the actual new name over the course of the season. This would be an improvement from the whole Chief Wahoo thing, where Cleveland announced they’d be removing Wahoo from their uniforms in time to host the 2019 All-Star Game, but not in time for the season where they were actually making that announcement. It’s also unclear if they’ll still continue to sell Indians-branded merchandise if they ditch the name, like they continued to sell Wahoo merch at the stadium and locally although not on their online shop. Racism is still profitable, so it’s always a possibility, but we’ll get a chance to see just how serious they are about all of this soon.
This is long overdue, but as it was back when Washington became Football Team, it’s just a start. What changing the name will accomplish, more than anything, is changing the culture of Cleveland’s baseball fans for the better. It will no longer be a culture of appropriation, of “honoring” Native Americans by slapping on red face and headdresses. It’s also a more significant step, in some ways, than what Washington did: again, that was an NFL team using a literal slur for Native Americans as a name. It was huge and significant and all that for that reason, and the importance of it is not being discounted here. The point is that “Cleveland Indians” is far less obviously a problem, in comparison to what Washington was going by for decades and somehow still as recently as early 2020, and yet, Cleveland is finally listening and bringing about the change in culture that’s necessary to avoid the racism that has surrounded them not so much because of what’s in their team’s name, but because of it’s very existence and what it stands for to non-Native Americans.
As Nick Martin wrote for the New Republic in January of 2020 — I will say this every time, but you absolutely need to read that piece — the appropriation and the racism are the point for many. Getting rid of the source of those feelings to appropriate and to be racist — the team names themselves — is necessary:
But Native mascots are a monument to racism, just as the Confederate statues that dot public grounds across the country are monuments to racism. And like the statues, despite their often incoherent and cheap origins, these mascots and team names have begun to represent something different for the American people, something grander. They stand in for a version of America that never existed, one that actually respected its neighboring tribal nations. (It makes sense, then, that Native mascots and team names took off at the turn of the twentieth century, just as America was sprinting into its next phase in colonization: The erasure and assimilation of traditional Native governance and culture.)
For many Americans, having these mascots in place is important to their identity and their culture. The Native mascot functions as a seal of approval for the Americans who support it, an ode to their belief that this land is fairly theirs. It is the manifestation of a century of lies told to schoolchildren, about how this country was not built on stolen land and Native blood but slowly ceded through fair trades with The Indians. Any attempts to deviate from this belief system will be met with resistance. So much rests on it.
So, we’ve got Washington, Kansas City, and Cleveland all making strides to remove whatever justification exists in the minds of their respective fan bases to appropriate Natives and be racist, but MLB’s Atlanta franchise is out here, at last check-in, refusing to seriously engage with any of their culture. In August, they reaffirmed that they would not be moving from their Braves moniker, and it was pretty clear, earlier in the year than that, that the only reason there was no Tomahawk Chop during the 2020 season is because there were no fans in attendance.
Now, though, with them kind of being the last team standing in this regard, there might be more pressure on them to do something besides pretend to listen to local and national Native American groups. Why haven’t the Braves figured out how to get rid of the Tomahawk Chop? It’s because the only way to get rid of it is to move away from a team name that is meant to invoke Native American imagery, and they aren’t willing to do that. They need to change their culture, like Washington and Cleveland seem to be trying to do, but as of yet, that desire isn’t there. If it was, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation: if Atlanta was actually listening to the Native groups they like to mention they’re in discussion with every time something about the Chop or Native American mascots in sports comes up, then this would already be in the rear view. They aren’t, though, so here we are.
Maybe they’ll be next, not just because that’s the default at this point, but also because Cleveland has abandoned the cause, and a response from Atlanta will be expected. Their stances haven’t been defensible before, but they’re even less defensible as the rest of the sports world leaves them in a past we need build no monuments to.