The Major League baseball season is about to start, and that means it’s time for the United Church of Christ to go into high dudgeon:

The scheduled participation of the Cleveland Indians baseball team in Memphis’ annual Civil Rights Game on March 31 is drawing criticism from the UCC’s General Minister and President John H. Thomas.

Thomas is speaking out against a decision by Major League Baseball to pit the Cleveland’s baseball franchise – with its racially-charged “Indians” nickname and “Chief Wahoo” logo – against the St. Louis Cardinals in the annual exhibition game that honors the nation’s Civil Rights Movement.

“America’s pastime ought to reflect America’s noblest values,” Thomas told United Church News. “Logos and mascots that demean anyone fall far short of that vision.”

The use of the “Indians” name in sports is widely offensive to American Indians and the team’s “Chief Wahoo” is regarded by many to be a racist caricature of Native Americans. Its use is often spoken in parallel to the “Little Black Sambo” caricature of African Americans, which dates to the early 1900s.

Chief Wahoo is a cartoon character who looks like this…

…and if I were the Indians, I’d have ditched it long since, solely because it’s extraordinarily goofy looking. I mean, can you imagine putting this on the helmets of the Washington Redskins? And yes, I agree that it’s a racist caricature by virtue of its goofiness, which has more in common with Amos ‘n Andy than anything complimentary of American Indians.

But the UCC doesn’t want to just dump the cartoon. They have also been leading the movement that has scared so many colleges and even high schools into changing their mascots over the last decade. Marquette’s Warriors became the Golden Eagles, St. John’s Redmen became the Red Storm, even my high school in New Jersey changed from Redskins to Red Hawks. Personally, I couldn’t care less about the changes, but the bullying self-righteousness of those who are forcing the changes does bother me.

The article above is a good example of that. The name “Indians” is not “racially-charged.” Any baseball historian will tell you that the Cleveland franchise changed its name in 1915 to go back to the 1890s National League franchise name, which was in honor of Penobscot Indian Louis Sockalexis (in the same way, the team had been called the “Naps” for several years in honor of the great second baseman Nap Lajoie). And the reference to such nicknames being “widely offensive” is simply dishonest. I’m sure everyone John Thomas knows can’t stand them, but as for American Indians themselves, that’s another story. The news site Indian Country offers just a couple of examples (more could be cited):

The New Mexico State House of Representatives once voted 49 – 7 on a memorial to support the use of Indian nicknames for sports teams. The memorial was sponsored by two Navajo representatives, both Democrat. The memorial stated that ”some critics have emerged arguing that [the] use of Native American images is derogatory and offensive while the vast majority of Americans, including Native Americans, find these sporting images both acceptable and applaudable … [and] … that colleges, universities, high schools, and professional sports teams be encouraged to continue to use Native American names and images as part of their team image and that other teams be encouraged to adopt other Native American images.”

The Albuquerque Journal in 2004 published an item in its sports page that stated: ”A poll of American Indians found that an overwhelming majority of them are not bothered by the team name [Redskins]. Only 9% of those polled said the name was ‘offensive.”’

An often-cited Sports Illustrated poll several years ago found only 25 percent of American Indian people found the use of team names offensive.

On top of all that, there’s the witness of my American Indian wife, who is offended by the nerve of white people like John Thomas, as well as the arrogance of American Indian “activists,” to claim to speak for all Indians. She has no problem with the nicknames (she’s an Atlanta Braves fanatic), and would gladly tell the grievance-mongers, if they’d listen. But that’s not likely, given that they certainly know best. As quoted by a story on the New Jersey State Bar Foundation site, Indian activists explain such false consciousness by saying, “Native Americans’ self-esteem has fallen so low that they don’t even know when they’re being insulted.”

Thank goodness the UCC is there to inform them.

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