The Cleveland Indians are about to defend their American League Title—exciting stuff. But while the team and its fans get set for another winning season, there’s that lingering ache. No, not the ache that reminds us that the team hasn’t won the Series since 1948. The ache of protests that the Indians logo is a red-faced, perpetually grinning caricature of what white people stereotypically believe Native Americans of all regions look like.
Chief Wahoo should really be reconsidered by the team before anything else. But, as a teacher of history, my struggle is with the name itself. Indians.
Who are these Indians we’re rooting for in Cleveland?
There’s a few versions of the story, such as that of Louis Socksalexis.
Louis Socksalexis played for the Cleveland Spiders in 1897, and some say the nickname Indians came from his contributions to the Cleveland team. If the Indians are named after Sockalexis, then they’re named after the Penobscot tribe—a people who never settled in Northeast Ohio.
But maybe they’re not named after Socksalexis. Maybe the Cleveland Indians are named after the Boston Braves.
In 1914, when Cleveland was looking for a name to replace Naps, the Braves had just experienced a miraculous season, winning it all. Native American nicknames were in! And maybe they were the magic Cleveland needed to win!
But, if the Indians are named after the Boston Braves, then they’re named after another team.
Either way, the Indians are posers from the New England area, which kind of makes sense, since Cleveland sits in what was once Connecticut.
My point is “Why Indians?”
Historically, there never really was a large presence of Native Americans in Northeast Ohio—at least not before the Europeans and their descendants began pressing populations into it. Some native people, such as the Erie and Wyandot migrated into the region, but it was a short-lived existence. There were sprinklings of the Iroquois Confederacy in Ohio, but mainly they lived in present day New York.
Mostly, Ohio is known for where Native Americans warred with Europeans, and where American settlers and ultimately the United States forcibly (or connivingly) removed the tribes from the region.
Bottomline, what we know of as Northeast Ohio was never very friendly or welcoming to Native Americans.
Now, if the Indians were Cleveland’s only questionable nickname, I could cope, but none of Cleveland’s “big-3” professional sports teams have names that really represent the area.
Take the very celebrated NBA champs, the Cavaliers. This might be one of the most confusing names. Why? Why Cavaliers?
From a historian’s perspective, a team hoping to embody the ruggedness of its parent city, while manifesting victory, wouldn’t select Cavaliers as a nickname.
During the English Civil War in the 1640s, the dashing Cavaliers supported the elite King Charles I. And they lost.
Cleveland is not a cavalier or Cavalier city. Its history is one of hard-nosed, working class steelworkers who persevere through constant barriers resurrected by the white-collared elite.
London is a good Cavalier city, or perhaps Tucson, Arizona.
The name Cavalier denotes images of aloof or arrogant upper class landowners who support divine right—God has placed them in their hierarchical position. Cleveland embodies none of this.
If the team wanted alliteration and something English, they could have gone with Cleveland Cockneys, which makes no sense, since there’s no Cockney accent in Cleveland, but perhaps something like Cleveland Continentals, which would symbolize the American’s fight for independence from Great Britain, while also tapping into Moses Cleaveland’s experience in the military while serving for Connecticut.
Yeah, that kind of sucks too.
And then there’s the Browns.
As a high school teacher for 13 years, I taught a unit on the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans. I used sports teams’ nicknames to help the students remember who colonized where. The San Diego Padres. The New Orleans Saints. Is there a double meaning in St. Louis Cardinals?
I could also use sports teams to explain related events. Why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Why the New England Patriots? Why the Green Bay Packers?
Though unique, this name explains nothing but a single man’s success story. A man who was later fired and who took his talents to Cincinnati, which makes for a better nickname story because of Paul Browns’ time with the Massillon Tigers.
Though the Browns name is sentimental and is the ultimate monument of recognition for the contributions of Paul Brown, it is really just that, a recognition of a single person and doesn’t describe the city.
Ask a kid nowadays what Browns refers to. I betcha they can’t tell ya.
This probably has something to do with the fact that Browns means nothing really and that kids are unfortunately uninterested in the origins of their teams’ histories, which might be even more upsetting to an historian.
Browns, Cavs, Indians, whatever it is, it’s a nickname for sports teams. And sure, there’s years of history attached to each name, and with that comes pride but also blindness.
Let’s move forward. Let go. It’ll be ok.
Consider our greatest fear and nemesis: the Baltimore Ravens. Years before the Browns moved to Baltimore, the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis. Did Baltimore forever pout and dream of the past? Nope, they chose a new name and won a Super Bowl.
Nicknames don’t win games, nor does a stubborn attachment to the past, and whether you agree or not, some find the use of the nickname Indians offensive.
I find it confusing.
Let’s place the nicknames aside, so we can move forward united and win together.
One last point that should come as comfort to Northeast Ohio. These Cleveland nicknames are all better than what Buffalo has to offer. Try to explain to a kid the meaning of the Buffalo Bills. Now that makes NO sense, like the Buffalo Sabres’ logo. Geez, Buffalo! What’s up with these nicknames!