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Opening Day Is Here. Is It The Last For The 'Indians?'

It's Opening Day for the Cleveland Indians, but some are questioning how long the name will stand. [Glenn Forbes / ideastream]
Opening Day at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio

Shortly after reports surfaced that the NFL team in Washington, D.C., would change its nickname, which has since been termed “a retirement” of the name, baseball’s Cleveland Indians released a statement saying that in light of social unrest, they would engage the community and stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to their team name.

That’s a long way of saying the team won’t be the Cleveland Indians for long.

John Adams has been banging the drum – literally, lugging his 26-inch bass drum to home games – for the Cleveland Indians for 47 years now. 

A trained drummer who helped start the Cleveland Blues Society, Adams said his was never meant to be a tribal war drum to play off the team name, but an extension of his youth when he would bang empty wooden chairs at the game to cause a ruckus.

Regardless of intent, Adams has been the target of protesters demonstrating against the Indians’ name on Opening Day.

“He says that’s a sacred instrument and it’s only played… it’s a spiritual thing,” Adams said. “Now knowing this, he says, are you still going to play the drum? I said, well, with my people, it means calling everybody together and one heartbeat.”

Even though cardboard cutouts will be the only "fans" in the stands for the Indian's 2020 MLB season, John Adams and his drum will be there in spirit. [Curtis Danburg / Cleveland Indians]

Adams says he knows that Native American protester was from out of town, because he’s spoken with leaders of the local protests and most have no problem with him or his drum. 

One of those local groups is the Cleveland American Indian Movement. Sundance is their executive director and a member of the Muskogee Tribe. 

“It took a very public death of a person of color and weeks of civil disobedience before they would even consider maybe changing the name,” Sundance said. “That in and of itself is offensive.”

Terry Pluto has covered Cleveland and its sports teams for 40 years. He researched the team's name for his book “Our Tribe” and says Cleveland tried to capitalize on momentum and popularity of the baseball's 1914 Boston Braves – leading to the Indians name. 

Ahead of the 2019 season – the same year Cleveland hosted the MLB All-Star Game – the team officially retired the problematic Chief Wahoo logo, which Pluto says was more offensive to Native Americans he’s spoken to than the team name. Pluto said there were no plans to change the team’s name then. But the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the ensuing protests and stadium-sponsor FedEx’s support of a name change for the Washington, D.C., football team makes the Indians’ announcement less of a surprise.

“The Indians do not want their top sponsors, Progressive and Sherwin Williams and the rest, to get a lot of pressure from special interest groups and others,” Pluto said.

But this isn’t simply a matter of changing a name.

“As one member of the organization said to me, we can’t just throw a name out there and say three years from now we’ve got to change it,” Pluto said. “This is a multi-million dollar trademark, changing the brand, all kinds of stuff. They’ll meet with some Native American groups, then at some point they will announce they’re going to change the name.”

Pluto believes 2021 will be a farewell tour of sorts for the Indians name, which will also give the club time to reconfigure the ballpark around a new brand.

Since 2013, Manager Terry Francona has been the voice of the Indians organization. He has said in the past that he knows the team isn’t trying to be disrespectful and feels the same way now.

“But I don’t think that’s a good enough answer today,” Francona said. “Even at my age, you don’t want to be too old to learn or to realize maybe I’ve been ignorant of some things.”

Suggestions to replace “Indians” include former team names like the Spiders and Crusaders, clichéd references to rock and roll, and a Lake Erie inspired fish. The Cleveland Carp?

Muskogee Tribe member Sundance knows what name he doesn’t want.

“We would prefer that the new name not reference anything with indigenous people. Not our culture, not our religions, not our cultural items,” Sundance said. “Period.”

Pluto estimates that of the more than 300 team-name emails he’s received lately, the vast majority don’t believe the name is offensive but are tired of the culture war and are ready to move forward. 

Drummer Adams, the Indians most recognizable fan, likes another suggestion that’s gaining traction; The Cleveland Drummers.

“Yeah, and then a cartoon caricature of me,” Adams said. “I’d love it. I would love it. I would be honored.”

Glenn Forbes is supervising producer of newscasts at Ideastream Public Media.