I've been acquainted with Chief Wahoo since his inception in 1946, through his elevation as a symbol of Cleveland and his excoriation as an example of racism. I also remember when he was held for ransom.
Looking back, it's hard to believe that we even survived the 10 years between 1965 and 1975, a era of chaos, dissent and rancor that came close to shattering the republic. Here, the Hough and Glenville riots ripped the town open and the Kent State University shootings brought the Vietnam War next door.
Even Chief Wahoo came under siege.
I was a reporter for The Plain Dealer in those days, and the strife made for one bad day at work after another. You wondered whether it could get any worse, and then it did.
After I covered the Kent State shootings, I was asked to work on a series of stories dealing with the plight of American Indians. Protestors had begun to rally against Chief Wahoo. The editors felt that this was part of a growing nationwide trend of dissent.
The leader of these protests here was an Oglala Sioux named Russell Means, a striking figure with defined, handsome features. Means was smart, energetic and had a regal aura about him. After he left Cleveland in 1972, he appeared in movies, wrote an autobiography, married five times and became a symbol of Native American militancy.
My assignment was to travel west and report on Indian life on the reservations. In those days, the reservations were desolate and forlorn, and alcoholism was rampant. Many of the young Indians who were drafted to fight in Vietnam never had been off the reservation. Some could not cope with the outside world and committed suicide. I remember government-issued tombstones in wooden crates waiting in a stack on the reservation for the graves of tribe members killed in the war.
In those mournful territories, one got the sense that something awful had taken place, as if the very spirit of the people had been exorcised. Hope wasn't even a broken promise. There was nothing America could be proud about in these sad, lonely reaches.
That same year, the paper got word that Means had led a group of Indians in a takeover of Mount Rushmore to protest broken treaties with Washington. I was dispatched to the Black Hills of South Dakota with photographer Richard T. Conway.
When we got there, the Indians were treading on the heads of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, practicing war cries, banging on tom-toms and shouting to astonished tourists at the foot of the mountain. National Park Service rangers were moving in. We knew if something was going to happen, we'd better be on top with the Indians.
I sneaked up the back of the mountain with Conway, cursing all the way. Another bad day at the office. We reached the summit in early afternoon, fatigued by the climb, and were greeted by protestor Nick Fasthorse.
"No white men on the mountain," Fasthorse said. You could smell whiffs of marijuana emerging from a group around a campfire. We convinced him he should make an exception, since we represented the media. When he found out we were from Cleveland, he scowled and made a derisive comment about Chief Wahoo.
I asked Fasthorse his intentions. He said the plans were to dump red paint over George Washington.
Conway surveyed the light conditions. If they were going to douse Washington in crimson, he wanted the best angle.
I began to get nervous. If they did make the dump, I figured this might not be the best place to be. The memory of what I had seen at Kent State four months earlier was fresh in my mind.
"If these guys are going to do it, they should do it by 3," Conway said. "The light won't hold up."
With the country in a frenzy over virtually everything, I had dark visions of helicopters and aircraft striking at the summit. If that happened, we would be trapped on the mountain.
I went to Fasthorse and told him it might not be a good idea to dump the paint that afternoon. I explained that a real protest needed network TV, at least a thousand tourists, music and signage.
To my relief, he agreed.
The Mount Rushmore story ended peacefully. The protestors were existing on macaroni and beans, it was cold, and they had gotten their headlines. It was time to move on to another protest.
When we returned to Cleveland, I told an editor to plan on some serious demonstrations over Chief Wahoo. The Native Americans appeared determined and were targeting symbols throughout the country. But the protests I expected never materialized. For more than 20 years, very little happened.
One night years later at Johnny's Downtown, Dick Jacobs, then-owner of the Cleveland Indians, was having a drink with the lawyer Robert J. Rotatori and me. The subject of Chief Wahoo came up, and Jacobs made a surprising revelation.
When Jacobs bought the team in 1987, he told us, he'd found it had a long-standing agreement with an unidentified Native American who, for the annual sum of $30,000, guaranteed there would be no demonstrations against the Chief. Jacobs said he'd refused to pay the hush money.
Later, as the team was about to move to Gateway, Native Americans began to organize a few protests, but none of any magnitude.
Decades later, the protests have grown. The Chief is under siege again. Only this time, it's mostly non-natives who want his scalp.