Since 1915, my adopted home city has been home to the Cleveland Indians, a name selected through a newspaper poll—a very democratic method indeed. They were previously the Cleveland Naps and really, what greater cause is there to cheer for? (Sadly, “Nap” was just a popular player’s nickname.)
But the woke came for Indians—and last week, they triumphed. Backlash against the Indians’ name started as early as the 1970s, with Native American groups arguing that Native nicknames and imagery make it difficult to teach people about their history and plight. Indeed, Ohio has a rich history of tribes, dating as far back as 12,500 B.C., that’s more than worthy of the public’s knowledge. The name “Ohio” itself is from the Seneca word for “beautiful river.” This history is, of course, not an entirely happy one. Moses Cleaveland, for whom the city is named, was responsible for “negotiating” with the local tribes to purchase land for a new city; he gave them about $1,200 of goods in return for that land.
And it’s true: Chief Wahoo, the Indians’ former mascot, was a caricature of a Native American—smiling ear-to-ear with a single feather on his head. One learns nothing about Ohio’s deep Native American history from looking at him.
After discarding Chief Wahoo in 2019, the Indians finally agreed to change their team’s name in December 2020. The search for a new name ended on Friday, when the Indians officially announced the winner: the Guardians. Guardians of what? The Guardians of Traffic—a reference to a group of statues carved into Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge. Racism solved.
But has it been? Mascots and team names are always caricatures; it’s their nature. A realistic rendition of a tiger would look more like an Ed Hardy shirt than a baseball uniform. The name of Cleveland’s team was no ruder than the Chiefs, the Seminoles or the Braves. Sports teams’ role is not education but entertainment. Given that mascots and nicknames don’t capture the depth of whatever they represent, the “Guardians standard” appears to allow only mascots representing people and things that have no meaningful history or depth. Any reference to real people are only approved if their behavior conformed to 2021 norms, as Amherst and Yale well know.
All Americans, and all Cleveland baseball fans, should get to learn the history—happy and sad—of our nation, including its original inhabitants. And if that were the real goal, the MLB would maybe do something to promote it. It could starting by paying its commissioner a little less than $11 million, perhaps, to publish some books and documentaries. But we know it won’t do that, because education is not the real goal behind Cleveland’s name change.
The goal is moral superiority. People who want to change names are good, and people who just want to drink a beer, eat a hot dog and cheer for the Indians are bad. When you concede moral high ground to the woke, the demands do not stop. The moral victors in society can make vast changes in the name of curing evil: they can change your school curricula, they can criminalize your behavior, they can spend your money, they can elect politicians.
This search and destroy mission is, yes, unsustainable, but more importantly, it is dangerous. The average Indians fan has been told she must change her ways: Guardians is right, Indians is wrong, and desires to the contrary are offensive. I’m as happy as the next person to root for guarding against traffic, but let’s not pretend this has anything to do with preserving the history and legacy of Native Americans.
May Davis is a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum and a former legal adviser to President Donald J. Trump.