Cleveland Indians: What’s in a name?

Recently, I heard a pundit on CKNW radio in Vancouver, BC play down the racist concern about Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team name, “The Indians”. He brought up how Vancouver’s hockey team name, “the Canucks”, is derogatory as well, and that no one seems to mind. Why then are we making such a big deal about “The Indians”.

There is a big difference here.

When a team of Canadian players decides to call themselves “the Canucks”, they are doing so because they are proud of their nationality, and they are using the term ironically, laughing in the face of whatever stereotype is implied in the term. The name is a bit of a self-effacing humor, a bit of gritty underdog sentiment, and IT IS CHOSEN BY THE MEMBERS OF THE CULTURE THEMSELVES. Furthermore, “Canucks” are members of the same dominant European culture that their detractors are. For this reason it is hard for Canadians to be too upset by such a name, derogatory as it is. The term “Yankees” is similar in this sense. Although there is likely no small amount of guile toward “Yankees” by some factions, to be called a Yankee is not particularly shameful.

On the other hand, “Indians” is a term that connotes some egregious stereotypes. One need only look at the grotesque logo of the Cleveland team to confirm this fact. Such stereotypes allowed the dominant European immigrant culture to objectify the many First Nations, and to conduct a systematic genocide of them. This fact is nothing to laugh off. The remaining “Indians” have been stripped of their land and their dignity, and still suffer grievously from this history.

The team did not choose this name in a spirit of comaraderie in a group of First Nations people who were employing the irony in identifying themselves; rather, the name was chosen insensitively for the objective appeal of the stereotypes themselves. They’re a team of wild warriors – unpredictable savages. And there is no point in clinging to the notion that the stereotypes have been neutralized by history when modern sportscasters continuously refer to the team as “The Tribe”. The perpetuation of these stereotypes through the perpetuation of the team name and logo is harmful. That stupid grinning image of an “Indian” serves to educate us in a subtle way. It is an image we can not un-imagine.

Nor do I minimize the seriousness of changing the name of a big-league team. Millions of fans get behind this team. Their brand is big money. Maybe the name will never be changed, but can we at least admit that we have a problem? Right is right.

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