Chief Wahoo, an iconic American Indian caricature, has been the face and logo of the Cleveland Indians pro baseball team since 1947. While he appears to have aged well over the past 69 years, this may be his most challenging year yet.
Chief Wahoo is no stranger to criticism. American Indian groups have been protesting his presence for about 20 years, saying his image is racist and offensive. In an effort to appease protestors, the Cleveland Indians officially made the block letter “C” its primary team logo in 2014. Nonetheless, Chief Wahoo still adorns the team’s uniforms, hats, helmets, souvenirs, and stadium décor.
In response to the team’s logo change, the Cleveland Indians’ part-owner and chief executive Paul Dolan stated that while he sympathizes with those who find Chief Wahoo offensive, he has no plans to get rid of the logo. Dolan noted that Chief Wahoo has been a part of the team’s history and legacy. Chief Wahoo’s supporters endorse Dolan’s viewpoint, saying the letter “C” is too generic and not historic. On the other hand, Philip Yenyo, the executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, says his group will continue to protest and push for the Cleveland Indians to “drop Chief Wahoo.”
Late last year, a group of Cleveland American Indians filed a petition with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, seeking the termination of Chief Wahoo’s trademark, in addition to nine million dollars in damages, based upon the profits that Chief Wahoo has generated. Their claim is that the Chief Wahoo trademark is “disparaging.” In support of its argument, the claim referenced federal law, which denies the registration of trademarks which are disparaging to individuals or groups. According to Robert Roche, the Director of the American Indian Education Center, American Indians opposed to Chief Wahoo see this case as “their only recourse.”
Around the same time that the petition was filed, the Federal Circuit Court found the federal government’s ban on disparaging trademark registrations unconstitutional. According to the court, “Many of the marks rejected as disparaging convey hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities…but the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech.” The court held:“The government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks.”
In an effort to save Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians have cited this opinion in a recent motion, and are patiently waiting the result.