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Art Inquisition: Why Would We Wahoo?

Holy foo! Two teams in the World Series that nobody expected! With only two games left, the series stands at two games for the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won since 1908, and three for the team from Cleveland, who have been waiting for the big win since 1948.

Yep, I said “the team from Cleveland.” Why? Because the team’s name and logo is… problematic, to say the least. Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand how sports traditions are beloved by fans… for example, I have THOUGHTS about the weirdness that is octopus on the ice.

But strange traditions aside, I also know it’s possible for teams to rebrand without the world coming to an end.

Sometimes a plain ol’ name-change or rebranding happens when franchises move cities, though that’s not always how it works. (I mean, Utah isn’t really known for its jazz*, and there aren’t trolleys to dodge in LA**, but they moved just fine.) One move-related rebranding was set in motion when the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans.

The Hornets name is very specific to Charlotte: way back during the Revolutionary War, British commander Lord Cornwallis called the city “a veritable hornet’s nest of rebellion.” That’s a pretty serious local tie-in, so it didn’t make a whole lot of sense when the name followed the team to New Orleans. (And if you think there wouldn’t be an aspect of social justice tied into the move, you’d be incorrect.)

After the team moved to New Orleans, the initial rebranding essentially just added Mardi Gras colors to Hornets gear. But eventually, through a rather convoluted process, the basketball team was renamed the Pelicans. And aside from the heated arguments over the merits of names such as Swamp Dogs, Rougarou, Bull Sharks, and Mosquitos, and the subsequent gnashing of teeth over new logos and colors, did you notice? Probably not, and the “new” team has increased its revenue every year since.

side-by-side logos of the New Orleans Hornets (blue insect wearing shoes holding a basketball in one hand) and the New Orleans Pelicans (a stylized pelican with outspread wings and a basketball in the center under the beak).
via Under Consideration/Brand New

Sometimes, a rebranding could happen because it’s the right thing to do… but ultimately an outside influence forces a decision. Take, for example, the “mascot” of the University of Illinois: created in 1926, Chief Illiniwek was the University’s kinda-but-not-really-but-yeah mascot for decades. A long series of white men (and one woman) dressed in Lakota (Sioux) regalia would do a dance, vaguely based on fancy dance with some serious modifications, at halftime during football and basketball games.

I’m sure it made sense to someone in 1926.

The Chief has been controversial since the 1970s. A student is quoted in the 1975 yearbook as saying, “Chief Illiniwek is a mockery not only of Indian customs but also of white people’s culture,” showcasing the pervasiveness of white ignorance, and a visiting anthropology professor noted that Chief Illiniwek is an inaccurate composite of the symbols from several different tribes all mishmashed together. Eventually, the Chief was restricted to performing only at home games because other Big Ten teams wouldn’t allow the offensive character to perform.

The NCAA ruled in 2006 that certain Native American-based college mascots and symbols were “hostile and abusive” to minorities, and the U of I “retired” the Chief in 2007. The symbol representing the university sports teams became, for the most part, a block letter I, and the university uses the I-mark.  The “Fighting Illini” name remains, as it was taken from the name of the student newspaper predating the invention of the Chief. No new mascot was immediately chosen after the 2007 decision, which may or may not contribute to the ongoing, local movement to preserve/retain the symbol, but a committee to select a new official mascot has been approved with the intent of finally putting the issue of the Chief to rest.

a row of four University of Illinois logos: the 1867 I-mark with one side that looks like a Roman column, a "plain" I-mark, the word "ILLINOIS" in sloping block letters with the upper half dark blue and the lower half orange, and a block letter I in orange with a dark blue outline.
via: University of Illinois Identity Standards

There remain multiple student and alumni organizations dedicated to preserving the Chief tradition, and they are vocal. Some students still wear feathers and fold their arms while shouting “Chief!” at sporting events, and a student still dresses up as the Chief and dances in the stands. Each time the Chief-representing student graduates, a new one is chosen to perform. All of this still happens without the consent of the University or the NCAA.

The National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association have called for the retirement of the Chief, as have the campus-based Native American House, the American Indian Studies program, and the Native American student organizations. The tribal council of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, the closest living descendants of the Illiniwek Confederacy, has requested “the leadership of the University of Illinois to recognize the demeaning nature of the characterization of Chief Illiniwek, and cease use of this mascots [sic]”.

Other universities have successfully eliminated their Native American mascots, logos, and nicknames: Stanford, Oklahoma, and Dartmouth in the 1970s, Siena College in the 1980s, Eastern Michigan University, the University of Southern Colorado and Miami of Ohio University in the 1990s, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and the College of William and Mary in the 2000s. It is not impossible to make such a change; the University of Illinois is merely one example of ongoing community resistance to doing so.

Similar to the situation at the U of I, calls to change or remove the Cleveland baseball team’s logo and name have been happening since the 1970s. And while the official mascot is a strange pink beastie named Slider, that mascot still wears a hat and/or jersey with the Chief Wahoo logo and the team still profits from the sale of Wahoo gear.

The Chief Wahoo logo has been called “spectacularly racist,” gross, and dehumanizing. Native writers in particular have become more vocal in their protests as the Cleveland team has advanced in the playoffs, and note that the issue is not just about racism. Now: when you’re standing on someone’s foot, do you step away and apologize for hurting them? Or do you insist that it’s “not that bad” or straight-up deny that you’re standing on their foot at all?

And it doesn’t matter whether you intended to stand on their foot, it still hurts and it’s just not nice to stand on other peoples’ feet. Ideally you’d make an effort not to do so in the future, right?


A baseball logo parodying the Cleveland Indians, reading "Caucasians" with a smiling blond white man with a dollar sign behind his head.
Is this offensive to you? [Image: Shelf Life Clothing]

“The statement is obvious, this [shirt] is the same thing that goes on with the logo for the Cleveland Indians, right? So to have a problem with the logo of this, would be to have a problem with the Indians, but if you’re quiet about the Indians, and you got something to say about my shirt, I think it’s time for introspection. I think that’s a fair thing to ask.”
–sports journalist Bomani Jones, on the Caucasians t-shirt he wore on ESPN in April 

So, will Cleveland’s baseball team lose their logo? Well, though Chief Wahoo is still seen on the team’s home uniforms and caps, it seems as if they might be at least trying to move away from it. The team has been emphasizing the use of their block-C for a couple of years now, and there’s a #DeChief movement happening over in Twitterland.

Still, some folks are SUPER-ENTHUSIASTIC for Chief Wahoo:

Now, I understand how vital tradition is to a sports franchise, and how important consistency is to a lively tradition. And changing a team name is essentially the opposite of consistency. Will the Cleveland baseball team have to reinvent aspects of their tradition if they change their name and logo? Sure. But will more people be talking about them, buying new merchandise from them, actually feel comfortable cheering for them? DEFINITELY.

What do you think? Should the Cleveland baseball team’s name and logo be changed or kept? Do you prefer Wahoo or the block-C? Do you believe traditions can change with time or must they remain static forever? Are caricatures funny or mean-spirited? If an entire city was wearing an unflattering cartoon image of you, would you feel “respected” or “honored”? Comment with your opinions below!

The Art Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab reader. It appears on random, occasional days at 3pm ET… Because NOBODY EXPECTS THE ARTIST INQUISITION!

* they just changed the logo to have mountains, and later back to a musical note

** (but the team’s logo remains one of the longest-lasting in sports history)

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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