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Cleveland Indians Name Change Could Inspire Culture Shift

The Cleveland Indians announced this week the team name will change. [Media Whalestock]
Indians baseball logo

A century-old baseball tradition is coming to an end. This week the Cleveland Indians announced plans to drop the team name after years of controversy. The change is part of a larger national discussion this year about race and social justice.

Opening day in Cleveland has long been a time of celebration and conflict. For years, fans decked out in Indians paraphernalia have streamed into Progressive Field past Indigenous-American demonstrators holding signs decrying the team name.

In recent years, team management has slowly moved towards change. The grinning Chief Wahoo logo was removed from uniforms and stadium banners two years ago. On Monday, team president Paul Dolan issued a public letterstating: "Our organization has decided to begin the process of changing the name Indians and move forward to determine a new name that will better unify our community and build on our legacy for a new generation.”

“Since the Dolans have been owners, they have not shown a strong resistance to change,” said Theresa Walton-Fisette, a professor in Kent State University’s sport administration program. She has seen that change over the course of her tenure.

“I came to Kent State 17 years ago, and when I would talk about this issue in my class, it was like a closed wall to get students really to see that there might be a problem there,” she said.

Theresa Walton-Fisette [Kent State University]

University of Michigan researcher Stephanie Fryberg suggests the problem is even deeper than a professional sports team called the Indians or the Redskins, the moniker of the Washington Football Team that was dropped this past summer. Fryberg said there are thousands of schools across the country with Native mascots. From an early age, indigenous children, as well as their peers, see stereotypical representations of the American Indian – what Cleveland activist Cynthia Diindiisikwe Connolly calls “feathered and leathered.”

“And that lack of accurate representation erases us from modern times,” she said.  “Names and logos reflect and reinforce harmful racial stereotypes about Native Americans. They contribute to low self-esteem, low community worth, increased negative feelings of stress and depression. And this is especially in our native youth.”

Cynthia Diindiisikwe Connolly [Tom Lewis]

Soon after the Washington Football Team changed its name in July, the Cleveland organization conducted a series of meetings with local indigenous groups. In his statement this week, Dolan cited those sessions as key in prompting a name change for his team, adding: “We also spoke to local civic leaders who represent diverse populations in our city and who highlighted the negative impact our team name has had on our broader population and on under-represented groups across our community.”

Kent State’s Walton-Fisette links the renaming of the Cleveland team directly to the racial equity and justice protests that have roiled U.S. cities.

"The social justice movement this year has helped people to see things that were already there in ways that they really couldn't see before or understand - especially white people, to be honest,” she said.

Still, change is slow. The Dolan announcement said the Cleveland Indians name will remain while the team deliberates over a new brand. As a member of the Lake Erie Native American Council, Diindiisikwe Connolly took part in the meetings with the Cleveland club’s management. She says it was a major milestone in a decades-long struggle.

I think that the process this team took shows that it is possible to genuinely listen to voices of Indigenous people in our organizations, and that it's possible to take steps towards change,” she said.

And she sees it as a blueprint for future change - which could include college and high school teams. An analysis by the Columbus Dispatch this past summer found dozens of Ohio high schools across the state with Native American names and mascots, including, Redmen, Redskins and Indians.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.