I've likely gotten more mileage out of Chief Wahoo than anyone not on the team's payroll. Twenty years ago, I had his image tattooed on my forearm — I was drunk in Dallas with Dennis Rodman, whom I was then profiling for GQ — so I've worn him ever since. Wahoo, I mean, not Dennis Rodman, who, by the way, is as fine and friendly a drinking mate or foreign ambassador as I can imagine.
That was June 1994, when the Cleveland Indians had become the team I'd waited for all my life. It only dawned on me that I had paid someone at a Texas body art studio to brand me with a racist caricature when the Tribe reached the World Series in 1995, and protesters at the Jake burned effigies of the Chief in protest of what his image represented. It gave me pause then, but not much.
There were moments over the years — in Robeson County, N.C., at Pine Ridge, S.D., inside Yankee Stadium — when I thought about it and didn't unroll my sleeves or take my jacket off for fear of seeming a rude guest or something worse than that.
I've defended Chief Wahoo as a religious thing, a relic embodying and binding our hearts to the team. Like almost every Tribe fan I've ever known, I feel that.
But I've thought about it, hard, for a long time, and I honestly have come to believe that my feelings — our feelings — shouldn't count most. Chief Wahoo is a cartoon that lampoons a group of human beings who were all but wiped off the face of earth, deliberately, by these United States. You and I can study or ignore the genocide of the native tribes, but calling it less than genocide — or insisting what's past is past — is preposterous. Dishonest. Dumb as trying to argue that the idiot savage in red face on my left arm is somehow more friendly than a Confederate flag. You and I don't get to decide for anyone else just how much power and pain an image like that still inspires — not for swastikas or shackles or mascots like Wahoo. That's not about being politically correct. There's nothing political about empathy for other humans' feelings, the fundamental principle of all religion.
To love Wahoo does not make you a racist; it makes you a fan. But don't expect me to believe that your passion for the team depends in any way on their name and logo. Nonsense. Bring back the Blues or Spiders — so long as they wear the city's name, they'll be our team. As for Chief Wahoo, don't mourn. Already, he's tattooed forever where he means the most — on our hearts.