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The Chief Wahoo Curse demands Cleveland recognize Native Americans as more than mascots

Cleveland’s World Series loss may be a victory after all.

Cleveland Indians Fans Gather To The Final Game Of World Series Against The Chicago Cubs Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images

While the Chicago Cubs cherish the definitive end of Curse of the Billy Goat with their first World Series win in 108 years on Wednesday, Cleveland baseball fans must reckon with whether their loss was retribution for their racist mascot: Chief Wahoo.

As Peter Pattakos wrote in 2012 for the Cleveland Scene, the thinking goes that Cleveland is “paying the price for embracing America’s last acceptable racist symbol.” That symbol is Chief Wahoo, Cleveland’s racist caricature of a Native American chief, first imagined in 1947 by a 17-year-old draftsman and redrafted in red face in 1951.

As Ed Rice has similarly written for Indian Country Today, the city’s baseball team has been plagued with misfortune ever since, like most of the city’s other professional sports teams.

The last time Cleveland won the World Series was in 1948. The Cleveland Browns, who have never played in the Super Bowl, are also this year’s “last winless team in the league,” according to Sports Illustrated. The Cavaliers had to rally from a 3-1 lead by the Golden State Warriors in June to win the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

For the superstitious, Cleveland’s latest loss reinforces the city’s legacy of misfortune. And yet, the curse doesn’t have to be real to reflect the environment that created it. The Chief Wahoo curse isn’t just about wishing misfortune on a sports team. It reflects a bigger issue: America’s failure to recognize the humanity of the country’s indigenous people, even in 2016.

Native American mascots dehumanize actual Native Americans

The controversy surrounding the city’s baseball team, like Washington, DC’s football team, pivots on one thing: People have yet to be convinced that these mascots are inherently racist.

Fans claim the mascots are about unbridled enthusiasm for the game. In a memorable Daily Show segment, some went so far as to argue that mascots sporting racial slurs as nicknames honor Native Americans.

History makes it abundantly clear that these symbols dehumanize the group of people they are supposed to depict.

As David Pilgrim, a sociology professor at Ferris State University, told Pattakos, the final version of Chief Wahoo carried the same purpose of Jim Crow era caricatures like Sambo: “to legitimize patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation.”

More than half a century later, studies show this continues to be true. In 2014, the Center for American Progress released a report detailing the damaging psychological impact of these mascots, from creating hostile learning environments at schools with Native American mascots to general low self-esteem and mental health among indigenous people forced to bear witness to these symbols.

“The issue is not one of political correctness but about promoting human dignity to those who have been denied it for all too long in this country,” Joaquin Gallegos, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Pueblo of Santa Ana, said in the report.

While Cleveland baseball fans dressed up in faux headdresses with red face paint, actual indigenous people, like the Standing Rock Sioux, have been fighting for their rights in Standing Rock, North Dakota, in an effort to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The private project threatens both their water supply and the desecration of sacred ancestral lands.

Chief Wahoo isn’t merely a symbol of pride in a major league sports team. It represents an unsettling source of cognitive dissonance: Native Americans are valued more in America as sports mascots than as actual people with actual needs and rights that have been historically neglected and denied since America’s inception.

So is the Curse of Chief Wahoo real? Maybe. Maybe not. The undeniable fact is that the curse is a reminder of America’s shameful failure to recognize indigenous people as actual people.

Correction: The piece mistakenly said the Curse of the Billy Goat was 108 years old. The Chicago Cubs had not won the world series for 108 years.

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