For a time, baseball seemed like one of the last places one could go to be free from politics and its various “reckonings,” racial or otherwise. No longer. One need only look to the jumbotron at Cleveland’s Progressive Field to see a logo and team name emblematic of wokeness’s triumph over America’s national pastime: the Cleveland Guardians. In professional sports, perhaps only one other team name has less character: the NFL’s newly mascot-less Washington Commanders. Both are the dull offspring of our conformist cultural moment.
Much as the appellation “Latinx” remains unpopular (or unknown) outside the academic ivory towers in which it was born, Native American support for these sports name changes dwindles fast outside the activist community. For instance, the Spokane Indians, a minor league baseball team in Washington State, has built a close relationship with local indigenous community members. And the reservation neighboring the Spokane tribe still proudly touts its own football team’s name—the Redskins.
This should come as no surprise. A 2016 Washington Post poll of Native Americans found that 90 percent were not offended by the Washington Redskins team name. According to the Bureau of Indian Education, nearly two dozen (and likely many more) tribal high schools employ similar mascots and logos.
Most American Indians probably have mixed feelings that depend on the particular team name and mascot. A dissertation exploring the issue found that a majority of Native Americans from northeastern Ohio (near Cleveland) found the major league baseball team’s mascot “problematic,” though a plurality agreed that the issue should be “sidelined until other social and cultural problems are addressed.”
Progressive activists still view themselves as the anointed spokesmen (or rather, spokespeople) of these communities. “It always makes me sad to hear that Native people, especially tribal leaders, have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to stereotypes,” activist Suzan Shown Harjo told the New York Times. “There really is no such thing as a good stereotype.” A National Geographic story on the subject didn’t bother to include any opinions other than those of activists.
For activists, the death of George Floyd in 2020 presented an opportunity. Corporations hurried to ride the woke wave before it crashed on them. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Mrs. Butterworth were among the first casualties. The activists have moved on to the more than 1,000 Native mascots across the United States—Indians, Chiefs, Raiders, Warriors, Braves, Thunderbirds, and so on.
Names and traditions can change over time; the problem comes when change is forced under self-righteous or coercive conditions. As the examples of Cleveland and Washington show, such processes usually result in names and mascots that sound sterile and focus-group driven. The former Indians franchise brainstormed nearly 1,200 potential replacement names before settling on the safest possible option, which not coincidentally was perhaps the least interesting.
In 2001, American Indian activists created a campaign to raise awareness about offensive sports mascots by mocking up baseball hats with fictional logos showing other ethnic stereotypes. One advertisement featured a Cleveland Indians baseball hat alongside caps for the New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen. Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish myself, but truth be told, the “Jews” sounds more interesting to me than the Guardians—though I doubt it would instill much fear in opposing teams to see fans kvetching instead of doing a tomahawk chop.
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