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Saturday, April 3, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Activist On Mascot: `It's About Racism'

Newhouse News Service

AS A NEW BASEBALL SEASON BEGINS, Native American activists will renew their efforts to end the use of Indian names and images by sports teams. Juan Reyna is a Cleveland Indian, but the only record he is compiling at Jacobs Field is an arrest record.

He is not a baseball player but a genuine American Indian who lives in Cleveland. Reyna has twice been arrested for protesting his hometown ballclub's appropriation of his ethnic identity and for burning effigies of Chief Wahoo, the ballclub's cartoon mascot, who the team's management insists should be seen as an icon of honor.

Come the home opener, April 12, Reyna and his allies will be outside Jacobs Field once again.

"It's not about baseball," says Reyna, a Mexican Apache who heads a local group called the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance. "It's about racism."

As a new baseball season begins, American Indian activists will renew their efforts to end the use of Indian names and images by sports teams. Universities and colleges

In recent years, scores of colleges and universities have shed their Indian names and symbols. St. John's University in New York went from the Redmen to the Red Storm; Miami University of Ohio from the Redskins to the Red Hawks; Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma from the Redskins to the Crimson Storm. Los Angeles and Dallas schools have done away with Indian names.

A group of institutional investors - the New York-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility - has persuaded the makers of Budweiser and Miller beers and Coca-Cola to stop using Chief Wahoo and his ilk in their advertising. Likewise, the Denny's restaurant chain has instructed its employees in the Cleveland area not to wear Wahoo at work.

In the February Harvard Law Review, a third-year law student, Aaron Strider Colangelo, outlined a legal strategy that could be used to bring public accommodations civil-rights suits against professional sports teams - whether it's baseball's Braves or Indians, football's Redskins or Kansas City Chiefs or hockey's Chicago Blackhawks.

The heart of Colangelo's claim: "The use of Indian team names and mascots denies American Indians the full and equal enjoyment of a place of public accommodation": the stadium.

And early last month, under the pressure of an unprecedented U.S. Justice Department civil-rights inquiry, the Buncombe County, N.C., Board of Education voted to drop the use of "Squaws" as "an expression of pride and school spirit" for the girls' athletic teams at Erwin High School after it was informed that in some Indian languages "squaw" translates as "vagina."

But despite recent changes, there remain literally thousands of school teams with Indian names in America.

"It's Indians and animals - that's basically it," says Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Indian who is president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Indian-rights organization based in Washington.

In Ohio alone, according to a national inventory compiled by the Detroit chapter of the American Indian Movement, there are 218 elementary schools, high schools and colleges with Indian mascots: 122 Indians, 51 Warriors, 21 Redskins, 17 Braves, six Chiefs and one Redmen. Massachusetts has 30; New Jersey, 71; New York, 161; and California, 181.

Last year in Washington state, Meadowdale High School stopped calling its athletes "Chiefs" and changed to "Mavericks." However, some of the state's high schools still use Native American mascots; there are 12 Warriors, 10 Indians, three Braves, two Redskins, one Chief and one Chieftain.

"I'm 66; I grew up in a different era. I just have a problem with this idea that everything is supposed to be so politically perfect," says Jed Weisman, a Cleveland attorney whose father, Lefty Weisman, was the Indians' trainer from 1921 to 1949. "Why are we always bending to the minority opinion?"

Hugh Morgan, a Cleveland tax attorney who presides over the Wahoo Club, a leading booster group, agrees. "I have a lot of trouble understanding why it is an issue. To me, (Wahoo) doesn't cast any aspersions on the Indian race. If anything, it's a strong, positive symbol."

James Fenelon is a sociologist at Cleveland's John Carroll University who did a recent scholarly study, "Wahoo: Window Into the World of Racism." He says that Morgan's attitude typifies the response of most white Clevelanders in his survey.

Fenelon says he was labeled a troublemaker on campus when, shortly after he arrived in 1995, he complained that the Indians' Wahoo flag was flying just below the American flag on campus. To Fenelon, the message delivered by a flag with nothing on it but the word "Indians" and a caricature of a chief named Wahoo was not hard to decipher.

"It's not symbolic racism; it's flat-out, in-your-face . . . racism," says Fenelon, who is a Standing Rock Sioux.

And yet, Indian activists are often told to lighten up when they complain about the use of sacred objects - like feathers - in sports mascots like Wahoo, or object to fans engaging in stereotypical Indian behavior - like going "Woo woo woo" while patting their hands to their mouths, or cutting the air with the "Tomahawk Chop" favored by Atlanta Braves fans.

"It's what the crowd likes to do," Jane Fonda, the first lady of the Atlanta Braves, said last year before the National Press Club in Washington. "There are more important issues for Native Americans to work on than the `Tomahawk Chop.' "

But to Clevelander Beverly Jones, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwa, Wahoo matters.

In October 1996, Jones dropped by her children's elementary school to see why her son, Jeremiah, an excellent student, was doing less well. Cleveland was in the midst of a league championship series with the Baltimore Orioles, and when Jones arrived, the school was in the throes of a Cleveland Indians spirit day.

"It was just a madhouse," Jones recalls. "There was Wahoo everywhere." Her son was humiliated, and she took him and his sister, Janet, home. "I have never put them back," says Jones, who has been home-schooling them ever since.

The Cleveland ballclub says the team was named for Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who briefly starred with Cleveland's national-league franchise.

But Sockalexis' legacy is a melancholy one. The Cleveland Press reported in 1897 that he was often greeted by fans' "war whoops" and "yells of derision." And his career ended after only 94 games, a casualty of alcoholism.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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