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The Real Cleveland Indians - Part 2

Monday, April 8, 2002 at 2:18 PM

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(As we learned earlier this hour,) the Native Americans who once lived in the Cuyahoga Valley - the original Cleveland Indians - left the area before the first Europeans arrived. But the region's natural resources were too rich to remain untapped. By the early 1700's, other tribes from as far away as Canada drifted south, where they were soon confronted by a growing European population. Those historic tribes were eventually moved onto western reservations. But today's Cleveland Indians have their own story. As 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports, it's a story closely tied to activist Russell Means the American Indian Movement.

KS: When the first European settlers arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga, they found a landscape mostly empty of the Indian tribes they’d encountered in the east. But it wasn’t long before indigenous people from as far away as Canada began drifting back into the region.

Phillip Weeks: Historic Ohio Indians are latecomers.

KS: Dr. Phillip Weeks is a professor of History at the Stark County campus of Kent State University. Weeks says early accounts of the Lake Erie region written by French Jesuit priests document the first historic Indian inhabitants - a group they called the Cat people.

PW: Eries were almost wiped out by the Iroquois. Another group, called the Wyandot, were Hurons from Canada who had been driven out of Canada by the Iriquois. They’re the ones the settlers encountered first.

KS: Such encounters were rare, however. Most tribes melted away to the empty lands to the west. Weeks says it wasn’t long before many were confined there.

PW: The tribes in western Ohio were assaulted militarily and forced to sign treaties like the Greenville Treaty of 1795, which forfeited all their lands in eastern and southern Ohio. For a time there were reservations in Western Ohio. Ultimately, these were extinguished by the early 1800’s and the tribes were given new lands further west.

KS: Thereafter followed a series of government policies to deal with the nation’s native population. Stripped of their traditional livelihood and confined to reservations, many desperate tribes struck back.

PW: After battles like the Little Bighorn, the government needed to deal with tribes on the reservation. So Ohio President Rutherford Hayes created the Americanization policy.

KS: That policy divided many communal lands into private allotments, often sold to Whites for less than their value. After World War II, Weeks says the government began a new program. Many federal officials wanted to end the reservation system by extending the policy of assimilation. In 1952, the Relocation Services Program established offices in Cleveland and eight other cities to provide relocation services to Indians who volunteered to move off the reservation. More than 5,000 came to Cleveland from a variety of tribes, mainly in the West.

Bob Roche: (names the tribes) None of us are indigenous.

KS: Bob Roche is a Chiracahua Apache and director of the Cleveland American Indian Education Center, which seeks to educate the public about Native American culture.

BR: They came on a dream… but the reality was they didn’t have the job skills they needed.

KS: Roche himself lived in Cleveland orphanages until he was 14. Then in 1969, he met Russell Means, a Lakota who had also come to Cleveland. Roche says Means was appalled by the living conditions of the new Cleveland Indians.

BR: Russell Means started the first Indian Center in 1969. Wanted to get them proper housing.

KS: Means went on to found the American Indian Movement, whose controversial stand-offs with government troops in South Dakota and elsewhere brought the plight of Native Americans to national attention. Yet despite years of activism, Roche says the lives of Cleveland’s Indians remain little changed.

Recent lawsuits brought by Native Americans over the racial slur they see in the Chief Wahoo logo of the Cleveland Indians baseball team have won the real Cleveland Indians little sympathy. But Kent State professor Philip Weeks believes the activism is justified.

PW: Yes, yes it is… poorest minority in U.S.

KS: Today, fewer than 3,000 Native Americans live and work in Cleveland. They belong to more than a dozen cultural clubs and many gather each year for an intertribal powwow. But the real Cleveland Indians remain an almost invisible minority in a city that was once a homeland of their people. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.

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