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Commentary: Mascot change first step in right direction

Pearl Thomas and the Rev. David Wilson clap along to the music of the Africa University touring choir during the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

Pearl Thomas and the Rev. David Wilson clap along to the music of the Africa University touring choir during the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore.

 

I admit that I was taken aback when I first saw the news on social media that the Cleveland Indians will stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms in 2019. I applaud the team for taking this small step in eliminating the symbol that team owners said was “no longer appropriate for use on the field.” 

The logo, in use since 1948, may be the least offensive of the Native logos and names used by professional teams. My first “real” encounter with the Cleveland Indians was at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland. Our Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference delegation and observers stayed at a hotel directly across the street from the ballfield. 

The team played while we were there, and I must admit that there were some in our group who sneaked over to the game to watch. I am not sure if it was the fascination of watching a professional baseball game or the Cleveland Indians.

I recall wondering at that time what the fascination was with non-Native persons who were so passionate about maintaining and promoting Native mascots. While watching a baseball game this summer, the cameras turned to a non-Native person in the crowd playing a big drum with the stereotypical drum beat heard in old (and sometimes new) Hollywood movies. I thought, “I wonder what he thinks he is accomplishing?”

Is it because the symbol is something people think they can own? Is it because people have no regard to the feelings of another race by demoralizing and making fun of a race of people? Is it because people don’t really think about what they are doing or how silly they look or act by wearing fake headdresses and war paint?

Or do these persons really think they are honoring Native peoples by these insensitive actions?

I was on the Commission on General Conference when it first chose Richmond, Virginia, as the host city for the 2012 conference. Soon after it was announced, we found out the city was the feeder team for the Richmond Braves. The commission moved the meeting to Tampa, Florida. 

The 2004 resolution that called for the denomination to meet in cities that do not sponsor sports teams using Native American names and symbols was the catalyst that prompted that decision.

The chair of our commission read some of the hateful emails and letters she received from United Methodists from all over and I was appalled and saddened that the people there felt so passionate about their racist mascots.  

Perhaps this issue will be like others that we are dealing with in this country in that it will take another generation who are more in tune and culturally sensitive to correct the injustices. 

The United Methodist Church has a continued role in this as well, as we have passed resolution after resolution against mascots. 

I recall a phone call I made to an executive after I saw their organization was meeting in Kansas City, Missouri. I said, “You do know that there is a resolution for United Methodist boards not to meet in cities with Native American mascots, don’t you?” 

She replied, “I looked and that resolution was not in The Book of Resolutions this quadrennium.” (Editor’s note: The 2004 resolution expired in 2012; a new resolution adopted in 2016 did not include proposed language about not hosting events in cities with Native American mascots.)

I was certainly disappointed as I knew the intent of past legislations and would have hoped that other United Methodist entities would understand the intent of past resolutions, even if they were not currently published in The Book of Resolutions. 

In 2015, the General Board of Global Ministries made the decision to move to Atlanta, home to the Atlanta Braves. My biggest disappointment was in the entities that approved the move, with very little input from the Native American constituency in the church. 

However, this past year, the general secretary has initiated conversations with Native leaders regarding raising awareness of the mascot issue with their board and the Atlanta area. A committee has met already and is working on ways to address this issue. 

During the last General Conference, one of the delegates opposed wording that prohibited United Methodist agencies and groups from meeting in cities with Native mascots, citing that there was more of a leverage to push for change. Let’s hope delegates and the people of the church are sincere about that verbiage as Native Americans continue to advocate and push for change on issues such as this mascot issue. 

The New York Times reported that the Indians organization ultimately agreed with the baseball commissioner that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in major league baseball. We need that kind of firm action from The United Methodist Church to affirm Native Americans of our place in the world and self-worth as people created in the image of God. 

Wilson is superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.