On Chief Wahoo And Native American Imagery The Cleveland Indians say they'll stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms in 2019. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Paul Chaat Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian.

On Chief Wahoo And Native American Imagery

On Chief Wahoo And Native American Imagery

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The Cleveland Indians say they'll stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms in 2019. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Paul Chaat Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian.


A controversial logo will be removed from the uniforms of the Cleveland Indians' baseball team for the 2019 season. But the caricature of a red-faced Native American called Chief Wahoo will continue to appear on merchandise. In 2018, Native American names and imagery still abound in the United States on products and sports franchises and weaponry. Paul Chaat Smith would like us to take notice. He co-curated a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It showcases hundreds of objects with Native American imagery. And it's called "Americans." Paul Chaat Smith joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL CHAAT SMITH: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Now, as is known, my father was the field announcer for the Cleveland Indians. And I don't mind saying I'm glad to see the end of Chief Wahoo. I can't even - won't even bring myself to say the name of Washington, D.C.'s football team on the air. But do you believe it's possible that some team names or images - Braves, Seahawks, Blackhawks - can be genuine tributes to Native Americans?

SMITH: I do think it's possible. And I do think the intent of Chief Wahoo was to add value to the team, to give it an identity. And it was created at a time in which those sorts of caricatures were acceptable. Clearly, any cartoonish character like that of any ethnic group would be unacceptable now. But, you know, the intent was there. And I think it's interesting to look at why it makes sense for so many different products, teams, weapon systems, things in your pantry to connect with American Indians. We're so used to it here in the United States. But when you step back, it's really a freaking weird phenomenon.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about weaponry. I guess I hadn't realized it until we were reviewing this material. Tomahawk missiles, Apache helicopters - can they be seen as tributes to the staunch warrior qualities of Native Americans?

SMITH: It really does stem from that. And there's really a connection between weaponry and sports teams - you know, the idea of a fierce warrior. One of the things visitors will learn through our exhibition is that by fiat the Pentagon names all helicopters after an Indian tribe or individual. And now they consult with Native Americans. So the White Mountain Apache are thrilled that the Apache helicopter has that name. There are differences of opinion within the Native community on this and many other issues. But the idea is interesting since, of course, the Apache were enemies of the United States for a long time.

SIMON: Yeah. And a lot of Apaches were killed by U.S. military weaponry, weren't they?

SMITH: Yeah.

SIMON: The Land O' Lakes butter box - there's a Native American on that. And an informal poll of people taken around here suggests a lot of people don't even see her.

SMITH: Well, she's in your refrigerator. And God knows what she's doing at night. I never look closely at it myself. I do buy that brand. And when you look at it closely, what you see is she's kneeling. And she's holding the box that she's in. And so it recedes into infinity. In other words, you know, in that box, you see her again and again and again. So it's this amazing combination of American identity, a generic Indian with really brilliant graphic design that, you know, you don't really notice. But I really do think she's up to something at night in the refrigerator.

SIMON: (Laughter) I'll check. Is it offensive?

SMITH: I think some of it is. Some of it isn't. You know, one reason I'm so happy they're retiring Chief Wahoo is because even though I'm a National League fan, the Indians have been my favorite AL team the last several years. They're an incredibly exciting team. So when I'm watching as a fan, I would really love to appreciate the players and not have this offensive logo out there. So I think it's really good for them. What we're hoping is that rather than getting too prescriptive about this is offensive - this needs to change - in this case, it's OK - look at this larger phenomenon that's really tied to American national identity, that's in all of our lives from our earliest memories as Americans. It's really the most enduring brand in the history of American advertising.

SIMON: I gather the exhibit is going to be up for five years, right?

SMITH: Correct.

SIMON: What do you hope - somebody who goes through there - how they might be touched or changed?

SMITH: The museum's challenge has always been that most Americans don't live in areas where there are lots of Indians. So they come in with nothing to do with Indians. They never met an Indian. And they're learning as cultural tourists. I think when they visit our show, they'll see that, actually, they have all these connections to Indians, whether it's a video from "South Park" or it's John Ford's masterpiece "Stagecoach" or it's Land O'Lakes butter maiden. There are all these things that connect you to it. They're not real Indians, obviously. But I think all of that is going to start looking a little bit different. And it's the beginning of a different kind of conversation.

SIMON: Paul Chaat Smith - he's co-curator of the new exhibition "Americans." That's at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you, Scott.


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