An Act of Honor or Exploitation?:

The Cleveland Indians’ Use of the Louis Francis Sockalexis Story

by Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D.

Associate Professor, Sport Sociology

Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY



This article was published in

Sociology of Sport Journal, 1998, 15 299-316.


Those who hold the power also tell the stories.
                                                            ----  Plato


For the past twenty-five to thirty years, the Native American1 symbols and imagery associated with the Cleveland Indians - the franchise name itself and the franchise's logo, Chief Wahoo - have been sources of controversy when challenged as manifestations of racism.2  Although Cleveland has occasionally tempered its representation of certain "Indian" aspects of the organization, as seen in the elimination of the tepee once located in center field and the retirement of the famous neon Chief Wahoo sign that was mounted for many years at the entrance to the stadium, protests registered over the years by numerous American Indian groups (Banks, 1993; Shepard, 1993; "Still Not the Real Indians", 1995), have failed to fundamentally weaken the connection between an "Indian" identity, the franchise, Cleveland fans, and others tied to the Cleveland and/or baseball communities.

In December of 1996, one of the most recent controversies surrounding Chief Wahoo emanated from a work of public art created by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds. The billboard, which juxtaposed a likeness of Chief Wahoo with the phrase "Smile for Racism", was nearly banned by the commissioning agency (the Cleveland Institute of Art) because of a perception that the message was offensive. The billboard was finally displayed in the city of Cleveland after it was determined that the school was contractually obligated to do so (Litt, 1996a; Litt, 1996b; Litt, 1997).

Although many existing American Indian organizations deem the Cleveland logo to be objectionable and have asked on repeated occasions for it to be replaced, there is enormous public ambivalence and confusion about the racial implications of the Native imagery so intertwined with Cleveland baseball. The substance of the inquiry that follows is an attempt to locate, in part or in whole, the source of the confusion created when the public is confronted with the question of whether Chief Wahoo is racist or not.

In previous scholarly treatments of racism and Native American imagery in sport, researchers have adopted several different sociological and anthropological approaches to the subject (Davis, 1993; Franks, 1982; Pewewardy, 1991). In this paper, critical theory is used to examine how perceptions of historical accuracy impact on the legitimation of Cleveland's claim regarding the origination of their nickname (Coakley, 1996)5 they exist" (p. 36). Special attention is directed toward the construction of the Cleveland story, which attributes the 1915 selection of the term "Indians" to a fan's wish to honor Native American baseball legend, Louis Francis Sockalexis. Cleveland's professed organizational intent to honor Sockalexis is tested in light of documented findings.

Data reviewed for this paper included the Cleveland organization's own account of how they acquired their name along with past and present renderings and antecedents of the story in newspaper articles, media guides, team yearbooks, discussions on the internet, and baseball histories from 1897 to 1997. Working chronologically, the threads of fact circulating through the Louis Francis Sockalexis story, as represented by the Cleveland baseball franchise, were traced over a one hundred year period beginning with Sockalexis' appearance on the professional scene in 1897.

By necessity, the act of tracing Cleveland's historical claim that Sockalexis serves as the lasting inspiration and raison d'etre for the franchise's well-known and much publicized "Indian" identity conjures up the very essence of what makes the past accessible in the present. As noted historian David Lowenthal (1995) points out, we come to know the past through people and things remembered, tradition passed on from one generation to the next, and stories told and retold.

Under scrutiny, the Cleveland claim mirrors the access points to the past that Lowenthal (1995) mentions. According to the franchise, the "Indians" name is intended to trigger a memory of the legendary Sockalexis, a memory sustained through the reproduction of the story in the organization's official publications such as the Cleveland Indians Media Guide and magazine called The 1997 Indians Game Face Magazine. Furthermore, there can be little doubt that the club's "Indian" identity has been absorbed into the collective consciousness of a considerable portion of the Cleveland populace, forming a shared tradition and common rallying point for many Clevelanders.

The Cleveland claim, however, also illustrates the perils associated with venturing into the past. Renditions of the past, as Carnes (1995) notes, are likely to be imperfect because lived experience can never be identically duplicated or replicated by other people in other ages. Additionally, the process of retrieving the past is subject to the limitations of the retrievers themselves, whose reading of the past is influenced by their own experiences and views of the world. As a consequence, the past is a place that can be illuminated and discovered through history and memory but it is also "in large measure a past of our own creation, molded by selective erosion, oblivion, and invention" (Lowenthal, 1995, inside cover page).

With the past thus conceptualized, the analytical approach to Cleveland's historical claim was advised by an awareness that some portion of the Sockalexis story may have suffered erosion over the years; been obfuscated by oversight or calculated selectivity; and/or, contained an element of invention. Following from that awareness, two broad research questions were posed, specifically:

a. from whose historical vantage point has the Sockalexis story been told?

b. what does the history of Native imagery in advertising reveal about the genesis of the franchise's name and logo?

History From Whose Vantage Point?

In a description of the resistance found in the United States to the notion that team mascots, logos, nicknames, and trademarks are insensitive to Native peoples, sport sociologist Lawrence Wenner (1993) hypothesized that the root cause of that resistance may reside in sport followers' generalized attachment to and affection for tradition and history. As Wenner said, "If you come right down to it, all of this derives from the fact that sport is just generally big on history. Sports and their history are our refuge from the trials and tribulations of everyday life" (p. 1).

An awareness of the political cache to be derived from a historical claim is revealed directly in a press release published by Cleveland as a means of explaining the origin of their name and logo. The press release points out that there is "historical significance to how the Cleveland baseball franchise became the 'Indians'" ("Name/Logo Issue", November 15, 1995)

As a collective entity, owners, managers, sportswriters, publicists, television broadcasters, marketers, players, and consumers serve in the dual capacity of sport history makers and sport history reenactors, thus forming the context and subtext out of which mediated sport images reflecting prevailing cultural conceptualizations of Native Americans emerge. As such, this group of sport history makers assumes a role similar to the one defined for historians by Michael Kammen (1991), wherein those seeking to represent history become the "ordained custodians of memory" who "arouse and arrange our memories to suit our psychic need" (p. 9).

Indeed, whereas Cleveland recognizes that a historical perspective is necessary in order to facilitate an appreciation for their use of the "Indians" name and associated imagery, the controversy surrounding these images raises a question about the historical vantage point taken by the Cleveland organization. In Kammen's (1991) work on the transformation of tradition in history, he noted that with regard to "major episodes in the history of white-Indian relations ... the truth was simply repressed - sometimes deliberately and sometimes by apparent inadvertence" (pps. 184-188).

Heap of Birds (1992), in a critique of Eastern, Western, and Non-Western theoretical frameworks, wrote, "From the point upon this earth on which I stand, in the Cheyenne Nation and from a modern place called Oklahoma, the following questions are posed: East of what? West of what?" He went on to caution that Euro-male centered perspectives, if considered as the only critical points of reference, represented a paragon of distortion that required alternative responses in order to fully describe the world.

Sociologist Laurel Davis (1993) entertains a parallel consideration in her exploration of the roots of resistance to Native American mascots in general. In an attempt to explain the sometimes vehement reaction to the elimination of Native American imagery in sport, Davis departs first from the observation that many people in the United States have formed a national and personal identity around the distorted and problematic notion that the conquering of the West was accomplished through the heroic and glorious efforts of men whose ancestry was primarily European-American.

She further asserts that central to this myth is the tendency to think of Native Americans in stereotypical ways. In sport, the stereotype of the revered although summarily conquered Indian warrior is a dominant figure. As a case in point, the literal manifestation of this mythology can be seen within the confrontations between two professional football teams, namely the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. Davis argues that challenges to symbols such as the "Redskins" and the "Indians" inherently challenge modern day sensibilities and identities borne out of this Western mythology, thus fueling resistance to their elimination.

Historian Laurence Hauptman, in his 1995 book on the misconceptions surrounding Native American Indians and their histories, observed that much of the contemporary understanding Americans have about Native Americans can be captured in the expression "One false assumption...and logic does the rest" (p. xi)7  In effect, Hauptman argues that Americans frequently construct their nation's history through misinterpretation, omission, and invented tradition. As a consequence, the history of the United States most familiar to Americans perpetually casts Indians in the role of obstacles to progress rather than a complex and diversified group of people who occupied the land ultimately seized under the guise of Manifest Destiny.

In discussing the impact of sport caricatures in particular, Hauptman (1995) wrote that "False images of the 'Indian', whether demeaning or not, are usually simplistic and generally classify the great diversity of Native America into a single entity, obscuring the textures as well as the complexities of the past or present, whether because of convenience, economics, or other reasons" (p. 81).

A History Lesson

In the press release distributed by the Cleveland ball club to explain the origin of their nickname, the public relations staff asserts that "Any discussion specific to the Cleveland Indians ... must begin with a history lesson" ("Name/Logo Issue," November 15, 1995). History lessons, however, can impart a myriad of understandings depending on the manner in which they are framed.

For example, Cleveland frames the story in a simple question and answer format. The question - what is the origin of the nickname? The answer - the name was selected in 1915 to honor Louis Francis Sockalexis. By providing a singular explanation for their use of Native imagery within the frame presented, the story described takes on a character of "their" story, "Cleveland's story". In effect, the story is presented as if the organization existed in isolation and had no connection to other forces outside of it.

By extending and expanding the historical frame to include late 19th and early 20th century America, and viewing the Cleveland baseball franchise as one of many corporate entities that appropriated Native imagery during that time, insight is gained about the meaning of the images used and the subsequent implications posed by their use today. In effect, as a corporate entity, Cleveland was not alone in 1915, or now, in it's use of Native imagery.

As a genre of commodified symbols, the collection of Blackhawks, Braves, Chiefs, Chieftains, Indians, Moccasins, Mohawks, Redmen, Redskins, Savages, Seminoles, and Warriors that dot the sport landscape are part of a much larger group of signifiers that have been used since the late 1890s to inspire brand name recognition and product loyalty among consumers.8 Pipe smokers light up with 'Red Chief' tobacco" (p. 17). Rosemary Coombe (1996), in her analysis of embodied trademarks, noted that in the late 19th century the requirements of mass production and mass commodification called for the use of identifying marks or labels that had the capacity to attract consumers to products while simultaneously instilling a level of consumer trust.

Characteristic of the era, "The discourse of commerce, advertising, and the law of trademark projected images of barbarism, conquest, and servitude to construct the subject positions of mass consumer and American citizen" (Coombe, 1996, p. 210). As a result, trademarks that featured a number of aboriginal groups, such as "African-Americans, Indian peoples, and Hispanic and mestizo subjects, as well as 'tribal' groups colonized by U.S. imperial expansion (e.g., Filipinos, Hawaiians, and Eskimos)..." (Coombe, 1996, p. 210) became infused into consumer culture. In effect, through the production, packaging, and purchasing of material goods American consumer culture became a screen onto which signs of otherness that legitimated civilization over savagery and progress over primitivism were inscribed.

The location of the moment when these images became intertwined with mass-mediated consumer capitalism (i.e., late 1890s) has the potential to offer important perspective relative to the cultural baggage they inevitably carry with them and pass on from one generation to the next. The practice of choosing Native American images as distinguishing markings for products originated in a time when Native Americans were equated with animals as seen in the common expression of the day - No Dogs. No Indians. - and represented to the American public in such social forms of entertainment as Wild West Shows and Worlds Fair exhibitions (Leiby, 1994).

The selective cultural amnesia, denial, or ignorance evidenced regarding this point of origination for Native American symbols in sport, as well as other products, may be accounted for in part, by what Taussig referred to as the potential mimetic faculty of turn of the century trademarks. According to Taussig's (1993) definition, "the mimetic faculty has the ability to copy, imitate, to yield into, and become other in such a way that the copy draws power from and influences the original" (p. xiii). In applying Taussig's concept of mimesis to Native American trademarks, Coombe (1996) emphasized that an imitative quality, one which allowed for the representation to gain power from the represented, was not the only principle at work. Imitation was joined to a principle of contact, whereby the image becomes owned and overtaken when the body of the perceived is brought in touch with the perceiver.

In effect, with each representation of a trademark fashioned and shaped to adhere to a dominant view of what Indians are perceived to be like, as seen consistently in feathered, war-painted, fighting sport images, the act of imitation draws power away from the original while perpetually altering the original in the process (i.e., creating distance between the real Indian and the manufactured replica of an Indian stereotype). In the process, the replica, already degenerative in and of itself, serves to simultaneously undermine the very people it mimics.

In contemporary times, this mimetic process of imitation, contact, and ownership can be seen in sport in a variety of ways. When teams with names like Braves, Indians, Warriors, and Blackhawks play, spectators engage in an array of obvious imitative/contact/ownership behaviors ranging from the donning of headdresses, wearing of "war paint", singing of "war chants", and chopping of tomahawks (Leiby, 1994; Rosenstein, 1997; Specktor, 1993). Less active imitations, but no less blatant, are the clothes in which fans wrap themselves and accoutrements with which they mark their belongings. From the eight-year old fan photographed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1993 resplendent in Chief Wahoo sweatshirt, handmade "Indians" sign, and sunglasses decorated with Chief Wahoo stickers to the garden where scarecrows have been replaced with Cleveland logos, fans imitate, embody, and literally own "Indian" things.9 

To follow the logic of the theory of mimesis to its final conclusion, imitation eventually is an outgrowth of literal economic, political, and ideological ownership. In a commentary on the messages of ownership and power embedded in Native American imagery such as Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois, Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian activist remarked, "I see the mascot as a symbolic display of our leadership. That we control you. We own you" (Rosenstein, 1997, video).

An end result of imitation, contact, and ownership by a group unaware of or insensitive to the Native American meanings of the symbols involved is the systematic distortion and destruction of the Native Americans' symbols themselves. What is owned, either materially or intellectually, is not the original or even a reasonable facsimile.

As a consequence, things sacred to Indians, such as the wearing of eagle feathers, religious chanting, and dancing assume qualities of the dispossessors, who regard these things as fun and harmless activities to be engaged in en masse at the ball park (Banks, 1993; Rosenstein, 1997). Thus, as the symbols metamorphose from the religious to the frivolous, the collective acts of imitation create symbolism that has an Indian facade but a racialized/ethnocentric value structure and meaning.

The accumulated effect of this metamorphosis is the delivery of limiting impressions of Native peoples as fictional, near mythic fighting figures or exotics whose customs and practices become viewed as comical or quaint rather than deserving of reverence. This impression expands exponentially through the sheer amount and magnitude of exposure these images receive. In a 1995 review of sport organizations (not including community leagues) in the United States that use Native American symbols, mascots, logos, or nicknames, 1500 high schools, 14 AAA minor league baseball teams, 73 colleges and universities, 50 junior colleges, and 5 professional sport franchises were identified (Connolly, Corbellini, & Grant, 1996). Some sense of the exposure viewers receive to Native American imagery while watching televised sporting events is revealed in the fact that during Game 3 of the 1995 World Series featuring the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, Native American imagery associated with the Cleveland team alone appeared on screen or was mentioned verbally over 650 times in a four hour broadcast (author, frame by frame analysis, 1996).

Native imagery permeates and punctuates the very atmosphere of the sporting world. With frequency, the auditory, tactile, and visual senses of viewers and spectators, participants and bystanders, come in direct contact with Native signifiers and symbols. This condition of Native imagery being transmitted through the air, worn our backs, and embedded in our language is something Bordewich (1996) refers to as cultural saturation.

In a commentary about the American public's general lack of awareness with respect to matters pertaining to Native Americans, Bordewich (1996) observed that, "... it is almost as if a culture that is literally saturated with allusions to fictional Indians had no interest in living Indians at all" (p. 17). It is this very point of saturation that Coombe (1996) considers when she concluded that "The generic Indian body of mass media advertising will be much harder to remove, so ubiquitous has it become and so invisible and unheard the real referents" (p. 218).

Invisible and Unheard Referents - The Case of the Cleveland Indians

An examination of the origin of the Cleveland Indians name provides an illuminating case in point with regard to invisible and unheard referents. On the surface, the official story of how Cleveland came to be known as the "Indians" begins in 1914. The team at that time was called the "Naps", a direct reference to Cleveland's legendary second basemen, Napoleon Lajoie. In that year, when Lajoie was traded from Cleveland to Philadelphia (Edwards, February 7, 1915; Edwards, February 11, 1915; Evans, February 7, 1915), the need arose to rename the franchise (Lewis, 1949).

According to a Cleveland press release, the renaming of the franchise was conducted through a contest run by a local newspaper, the winning entry being 'Indians', " honor of Louis Francis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Old Towne, Maine ..." ("Name/Logo Issue, November 15, 1995). In another Cleveland publication, the 1997 Indians Media Guide, an unidentified fan is credited with suggesting "Indians" as a posthumous tribute to Louis Sockalexis, the first American Indian ever to play in the major leagues.

A critical analysis of the story as presented by the Cleveland organization via press releases, media guides, and yearbook entries (all of which report essentially the same thing) beg a series of questions. The referenced newspaper contest itself gives rise to several queries. What was the name of the newspaper that played such a crucial role in renaming the team? Why was only one newspaper rather than the four that existed at the time included in the renaming process? 10  Would the exclusion of the other papers from the contest not have alienated supporters and writers from those papers? Additionally, in a time when the United States continued to implement governmental policy which stripped Native Americans of their culture and their freedom how likely would it have been that Sockalexis' ethnic background would have been viewed as something to be honored?11 (Sheppard, 1993).

In a review of sport sections of the Cleveland Leader, the Cleveland News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Cleveland Press from September, 1914 through March, 1915 the version of the story behind the renaming of the franchise differs markedly with the one presented by the Cleveland organization today. In early January of 1915, as the professional baseball community geared up for the spring season, Cleveland sportswriters were taking note of the departure of well-liked and much-admired marquee player, Napoleon Lajoie, while simultaneously recognizing the necessity to rename the team.

On January 6th, stories appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press reporting the intention of Charley Somers, president of the team, to convene a conference of baseball writers for the purpose of selecting a new name. Dubbed the "nomenclature committee" by a Plain Dealer columnist known by the pen name of "The Second Cook" (January 9, 1915), the committee would meet nine days after Somers' proposed process had been announced and a name identified at that time.

In the intervening days between Somers' announcement and the January 15th meeting of the sportswriters, banter appeared in the papers regarding the renaming of the franchise12. The erroneous idea that a contest had been conducted to rename the team may stem from a headline in the Cleveland Press which reads "Fans Will Help Select New Nickname for the Naps" (January 7, 1915, p. 14). Electing to solicit suggestions from the fans to rename the "Napless-Naps", the sports editor from the Press explained that "Nicknames suggested will be submitted to the committee." In response to the invitation, fans reportedly submitted fifty seven recommendations for consideration ("57 Varieties of Names for Naps," January 12, 1915, p. 12).

Any link between the Press solicitation of fan suggestions and the eventual selection of the "Indians" name is difficult to discern from the accounts presented and appears improbable. The assertion that a fan recommended "Indians" to honor Louis Francis Sockalexis, although not impossible, has no evidentiary foundation in the articles chronicling fan or writer preferences. In three stories from the Press in which the results of the fan response were listed, "Indians" does not appear ("Fan Offers Scraps As Team Name," January 9, 1915; "Favors Old Nickname," January 11, 1915; "57 Varieties of Names of Naps," January 12, 1915).

In the January 17th edition of the Plain Dealer, a large cartoon featuring several figures in stereotypical Indian attire and headdress along with the caption "Ki Yi Wangh Woop! Their Indians!" was printed (Blosser, January 17, 1915). A short story situated below the cartoon reporting the outcome of the baseball writers meeting to select the new name, noted that "The title of Indians was their [baseball writers] choice, it having been one of the names applied to the old National league club of Cleveland many years ago" (January 17, 1915, Part Three, Page One).

Two aspects of the story are particularly salient. First, Sockalexis is not mentioned in the stories recounting the selection of the name. Second, the Plain Dealer reported that the nickname was "but temporarily bestowed" until such time as the team could "earn some other cognomen which may be more appropriate" ("Baseball Writers Select...", January 17, 1915, Part Three, Page One). This statement does not support the notion that the name was intended to permanently pertain to the team let alone permanently honor a figure who did not warrant mention at the time the selection was announced.

The revelation that a fan's fond reminiscence of Sockalexis was not the driving force behind the adoption of the "Indians" name relieves Cleveland's story of its cloak of authority, revealing in its stead several problems. Perhaps nowhere is the problematic of this discovery revealed more sharply than when Cleveland asserts in their publications that "the memory of Louis Francis Sockalexis was not forgotten in 1914 and that he continues to be remembered today" ("Name/Logo Issue," November 15, 1995; 1997 Cleveland Indians Media Guide).

In 1992, Native American scholar and author Michael Dorris wrote that Native imagery in sport obscured reality by serving as "opaque curtains, solid walls of white noise." When considered through the lens Dorris describes, the tidiness of Cleveland's explanation for the origin of their name masks not only their own motivations. It also masks the complexity of who Sockalexis was and the texture of his experience as an Indian playing in the major leagues in the late 1890s. One might speculate that if Cleveland really intended to "acknowledge and foster the legacy of Louis Francis Sockalexis" as they claim ("Name/Logo Issue," November 15, 1995), this part of the story is what they would seek to tell. Noticeably, apart from Sockalexis' status as the first American Indian to play professional baseball, Cleveland publications offer very little insight into who Sockalexis was or what his experience as a player was like.

A Brief Biography - Louis Francis Sockalexis

A fair sketch of the ebb and flow of Sockalexis' life, with references to his family background, his path to the pros, and his life after baseball can be pieced together from several standard biographies. Sockalexis was born into what has been described as an athletic family. Louis was the cousin of Andrew Sockalexis, a marathon runner who competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Unlike so many other Indian children of the late 1800s who were removed from their homes and sent to live in off-reservation boarding schools, Sockalexis was educated in Catholic schools in and around Old Town, Maine, the place of his birth. While in Catholic school, Sockalexis distinguished himself in skating, track, and baseball (Cohen, 1995; Ward & Burns, 1994; Oxendine, 1988; Wellman, 1974).

Upon completing his schooling in Maine, Sockalexis went on to college at Holy Cross and Notre Dame. At Holy Cross, he immediately became a star pitcher and outfielder, pitching three no-hitters and recording .436 and .444 batting averages in the 1895 and 1896 seasons respectively (Oxendine, 1988; Seymour, 1960; Ward & Burns, 1994).

His remarkable success in college baseball drew the attention of Patsy Tebeau, the manager of the Cleveland Spiders, who eventually signed Sockalexis to his first professional contract. At the outset of his professional baseball career, Sockalexis appeared to be on target to fulfill the enormous promise the famous manager of the New York Giants, John McGraw had seen in him. McGraw described Sockalexis as the greatest natural talent he had ever encountered in the game (Hauptman, 1994; Oxendine, 1988; Ward & Burns, 1994).13

For the first three months of the season, Sockalexis acquitted himself well, being described as fleet-footed in the outfield and a marvelous adversary at the plate. Prior to suffering an injury in July of 1897 and suspensions for drunkenness that would prevent him from playing for two months of that first season, Sockalexis had a .413 hitting percentage (Voigt, 1983). Despite missing a significant portion of the season, Sockalexis stole 16 bases and finished with a respectable .338 batting average. Sockalexis went on to play sporadically for the Spiders in 1898 and 1899 before ending his major league baseball career (Hauptman, 1995).

Although some aspects of Sockalexis' career as a professional baseball player are well documented and supported by a degree of consensus among biographers, a review of what has been written about Sockalexis reveals that his life and identity are inextricably tied to an image manufactured by sportswriters in their coverage of the Cleveland ball club, particularly during the 1897 season. In contemporary terms, the media hype surrounding Sockalexis makes the task of searching for Sockalexis that much more difficult and riskier. To study Sockalexis is to study the Sockalexis created by the franchise, the fans, and the media at the time.14 Importantly, Salsinger (n.d.) addresses this critical dynamic when he wrote that "While they [sportswriters] spoke in superlatives when his name was mentioned, none seemed to know a great deal about him."

Sockalexis' arrival in Cleveland was welcomed by sportswriters grown weary of trying to produce interesting and exciting prose about a Spider team plagued not only by a mediocre record in 1914 but an uninspiring nickname to boot. The Sporting Life reporter, Elmer Bates, wrote on March 22, 1897, just days after Sockalexis arrived in town:

There is no feature of the signing of Sockalexis more gratifying than the fact that his presence on the team will result in relegating to obscurity the title of 'Spiders,' by which the team has been handicapped for several seasons, to give place to the more significant name 'Indians' (p. 3).

Bates' counterpart at the Sporting News, Charles W. Mears, also had a sense for the possibilities Sockalexis' heritage afforded as a novel marketing and reporting angle. Less than two weeks after the start of the season, Mears (April 19, 1897) remarked upon the local interest generated in various cities about Sockalexis from press coverage featuring him. Noting that the 'Red Man' was the best advertised player in the business, Mears speculated that record numbers of fans would attend games simply to satisfy their curiosity about the strong and powerful Indian player.

Traced to its earliest origins, the appropriation of Native imagery by the Cleveland Spiders and sport journalists was not an attempt to honor Sockalexis or Native Americans in general. In 1897, usage was simply a spontaneous occurrence rooted in the practice of the times that had expedient motives at core. Stakeholders in the business of baseball (i.e., the press and the owners) aware of the interest that might be generated, cultivated his Indian image for the purpose of selling tickets as well as newspapers (Hauptman, 1995). Readers and fans were hooked as a result of devices such as references to Sockalexis as "Chief" and fictional stories about Sockalexis relinquishing his reported familial obligation as chief of his tribe in order to play baseball (Hauptman, 1995; Phillips, 1991).15

Tapping into a public consciousness that still remembered the Indian Wars of the 1870s, metaphorical references to White-Indian relations were frequent.16 An unlikely tale about Sockalexis being a relative of Sitting Bull appeared in one story (Bates, April 17, 1897). A much touted confrontation between heavy hitting Sockalexis and renowned New York Giants pitcher, Amos Rusie, relied on the 1876 battle at the Little Big Horn to increase literary appeal. The potential submission of the "Redskin" at the hands of the white player Rusie inspired reminiscences of Buffalo Bill's "first scalp for Custer" and Cody's killing of Yellow Hand after the Last Stand (Salisbury, 1989). This type of staged attraction replicated elements found in Wild West Shows where reenactments of White-Indian battles took place (Oxendine, 1988).

Along with cartoons picturing Sockalexis in feathers and with war club in hand, poems about him and his teammates being on the warpath (Wellman, 1974; "The War Club", May 4, 1897), and off-the-cuff characterizations of the Indian as a redman, redskin, and medicine man, Sockalexis was as much a promotional vehicle, meshing with the 'Show Indian' prototype borne out of the Wild West Show phenomenon, as he was a ballplayer. Thus presented to the public, fans responded in tempo to the sentiment at the center of the image.

Spectators for opposing teams were reported to have showered racial slurs and invectives on the Penobscot Indian frequently when he stepped to the plate. In a fashion similar to today's fans, spectators in 1897 imitated what they believed were war whoops and war dances, performing these when the so-called "Indian's team" came to town. Observing the disruptive effects of ragging, a practice akin to present-day forms of taunting, fans berated and demeaned Sockalexis throughout his abbreviated playing career (Hauptman, 1994; Oxendine, 1988; Rader, 1983; Voigt, 1983). According to Elmer Bates (May 8, 1897), "In many cases these demonstrations border on extreme rudeness. In almost every instance they are calculated to disconcert the player..." (p. 8).

As a part of baseball's folklore, the brilliant rise and subsequent fall of Sockalexis was marked by the press's awareness of his alcohol dependence and inability to play due to an injury. As his career declined, the angle sportswriters pursued in their coverage of Sockalexis shifted from that of a splendid baseball player whose 'Indian-ness' made him a novel presence in the league to that of a weak man, unable to shake the hold alcohol had over him. This shift in the story gave form to one of the most dominant and enduring Native American stereotypes, that of the drunken, lazy, and suspect Indian ("A Wooden Indian," July 13, 1897, "Sockalexis, Fat and Lazy...", August 4, 1912).

As the accumulated effects of deteriorating health, alcoholism, and racism took their toll, Sockalexis' performance on the baseball diamond diminished considerably. By the end of the 1899 season, Sockalexis was dismissed from the Cleveland Spiders. For a few years, Sockalexis continued to play baseball in the minor leagues, eventually drifting into and out of a variety of jobs before his death at the age of 42.17  

The role Sockalexis played in the early promotional usage of the "Indians" name becomes important in studying the resurrection of the name in 1915. Although his potential and prowess as a ballplayer are well-established, the belief that Sockalexis was honored by the press, the fans, and the ball club deserves to be examined in light of the documentation available.

According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1973), an honor is accorded to a person of superior standing (p. 549). Given the degree of ragging to which he was subjected and the manner in which he was promoted, the treatment of Sockalexis amounted to exploitation, not an expression of honor. The presence of Sockalexis on the roster in 1897 provided an opportunity to mine a set of cultural images that resonated with the paying public. As seen in the 1915 accounts, when the team faced the mammoth task of moving out of the basement in league standings while forging a new identity, there was no need to mention Sockalexis because it was the generic, plural "Indians" signifier that provided the marketing angle club president Charley Somers and the sportswriters sought.

Discussion - The Power of A Historical Claim

In commenting on the dismissal oppressed groups experience when attempting to rectify long-standing and damaging stereotypes embodied in the form of trademarks, Coombe (1996) observed that cultural resistance points to a "...politics of ownership and protest...that engages intellectual properties in increasingly commodified public spheres" (p. 202). As a trafficker in intellectual property, through the vehicles of press releases and media guides, the Cleveland baseball franchise actively positions itself as the self-proclaimed protector of an important historical perspective.

As such, does Cleveland, by virtue of its status as an owner, have the right to distill and distribute a rendition of history that rings so falsely? By telling and selling this story as it is presently constructed, Cleveland either advertently or inadvertently renders a potentially powerful history (i.e., the life and times of Louis Francis Sockalexis) trivial while feeding a shallow patina of popular culture that, in turn, replicates images of Indians that lack substance and complexity. The implications of this dynamic are several.

The revelation that the Cleveland story lacks credibility has been reported before in the mainstream press by the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Aran & Sangiacomo, June 12, 1993) and by other sources as well. Governed, it seems, by Hauptman's (1995) notion that one false assumption triggers a particular path of logic that cannot lead to an accurate conclusion, there is a vital sense for those who wish to believe Cleveland's story that somewhere within the vast reaches of this history, Sockalexis was honored when the franchise was named and is honored today. The constant dissemination of Cleveland's version of the story through mass mediated sources feeds that vital sense of possibility, essential to Cleveland's ability to sustain the story because of its insularity to criticism. Who, for example, could maintain their own integrity by finding fault or exception with a sincere act of corporate admiration and regard?

Evidence can be found in arguments made by advocates who seek to retain the name and logo that they are influenced by the perceived legitimacy of the Cleveland story. When Russell Means, a Clevelander and leader in the American Indian Movement, sought an injunction in 1972 that would have forced the club to discontinue use of the Chief Wahoo caricature, heated debate ensued around the country (Schneider, February 5, 1972). Sentiment regarding Means' assertion that Wahoo was demeaning to Indians reflected that the historical accuracy of the Cleveland story affected the views of some people. For example, in a letter to the Sporting News, one baseball fan pointed out that the controversy stirred by Means' suggestion that the symbol was racist failed to consider how the Indians came to be named. Citing the history as it was known to him, the writer concluded: "So, obviously the club had honorable intentions in choosing 'Indians' as its team nickname" (Wheat, March 4, 1972).

A similar argument was voiced in 1993, when controversy over Chief Wahoo again surfaced. Jennifer Boles, one of the founders of an organization called Save Our Chief, commented,

"The Cleveland Indians name and logo has a huge history behind them. If the Native American protestors would look at the history they'd realize they are being honored" (Aran & Sangiacomo, June 12, 1993, p. 2B).

The impact of the historical claim on the ways in which people think about the Cleveland name and logo is reflected not only in the arguments advocates use in rationalizing the imagery. A palpable sense of history, and its perceived deliverance of fact and truth, resonates throughout a 1995 discussion about Chief Wahoo on a Native American internet chat line and information service called Natnet (, November 2, 1996).

Among the varied reactions to the Cleveland name and logo by Native Americans, ranging from outright frustration and anger to ambivalence and confusion to pride, the threads of the historical argument wend their way through the discussion. As one Abenaki woman wrote, "I think it was the first time (and only time) that naming of a non-Indian entity was done to honor us" (Carol Snow Moon, April 30, 1995). Notably, some entries replicate the language from the Cleveland press release almost verbatim (Toyoshima, August 4, 1994; Antone, April 28, 1995).

A hazy recollection that honor was intended in naming the franchise for Sockalexis contributes to one Native writer's ambivalence. Whereas Native imagery associated with alcohol is clearly offensive to the writer, the Cleveland name and logo are more difficult to dismiss as seen in the following reaction:

When I think about 'Crazy Horse Malt Liquor' and what all they have done it can make me sick, but I must admit that when I think of the story behind the 'Cleveland Indians' I have mixed emotions (Derringer, May 1, 1995).

The impact of the perpetuation of the Cleveland story, protected by a veneer of historical legitimacy, can be gauged at several levels. On one hand, Cleveland's claim is not without some debateable degree of socially redeeming quality. One might be justified in wondering, for instance, if there would be any awareness of Sockalexis at all if not for the story told by the franchise? However, a false memory neither honors Sockalexis nor serves the greater interests of society.

There would be imminent social good to be gained if Cleveland represented Sockalexis in a manner that genuinely enhanced the understanding of the public about Native Americans, their lives and their history. Tellingly, Cleveland fosters the reverse. Through the manipulation of selected information, the franchise uses a partially fictionalized "Indian" past for the purposes of silencing the protests of real Indians in the present. As a consequence, the majority are empowered to reject the notion that the ball club's name and logo are racist while ignoring protests from some Native Americans and their allies.

In the end, the continuing exploitation of Sockalexis by the franchise, the media, and the fans offers fertile ground for reflecting about the racialized dimensions of sport and society. In 1997, as "the American game" celebrated the breaking of the color barrier with recognition of the signing of Jackie Robinson (Weir, April 14, 1997), it is a telling commentary that conceptions of race and ethnicity in baseball appeared not to extend to Native Americans. Whereas the year 1997 marked the passage of fifty years since the first African-American player was permitted to play in the major leagues, little if any substantive notice was paid to the fact that the year also marked the one hundredth anniversary of the first Native American to play in the majors.18.19 Perhaps the profound silence of the Cleveland franchise and Major League Baseball on this point reveals just how damaging mythologies such as the Cleveland story are to our collective appreciation and sensitivity to Native Americans in sport and in our society.


1 Throughout the manuscript, the terms American Indian, Indian, and Native American appear. The author realizes that these terms in and of themselves are open to debate and discussion relative to proper use. Wherever possible, terms appear as they have been used within the context of the numerous citations referenced in the manuscript. 

2 Chief Wahoo is the logo associated with the Cleveland Indians baseball organization. Chief Wahoo is depicted as a cartoon character with a red face, wide grin, black hair parted down the middle held in place with a headband, with a feather protruding from the back of the headband.

3 Some of the American Indian groups that have protested use of the Chief Wahoo logo since 1972 include the American Indian Movement, the Coalition Against Racism in Sports and the Media, the Lake Erie Native American Council, and the North American Indian Cultural Center.

4 Edgar Heap of Birds is an associate professor of art at the University of Oklahoma. The controversial work was part of an exhibit entitled "16 Songs: Issues of Personal Assessment and Indigenous Renewal" (Associated Press, 1996).

5 According to Coakley (1994), "Critical theory is based on the notion that sports cannot be understood or analyzed apart from the specific historical and cultural circumstances in which they exist (p. 36)

6  Some scholars may argue that history as dispensed through a sport franchise's press release does not serve the same societal function as that of a scholarly regulated publication. In point of fact, there may be validity to such an argument. However, theoretically and practically, the two intersect. In their construction, both press releases and scholarly publications are expected to be developed in accordance and in adherence to a code of professional ethics. It is notable that the professional ethics of public relations practitioners and scholars share a common emphasis on the need to serve the public interest with honesty and integrity through accuracy and truth while avoiding false or misleading information (AAUP Policy Documents and Reports, 1990; Baskin & Aronoff, 1992).

Furthermore, regardless of the information delivery system, the material shared with fans and other sectors of the public influences individual and collective understanding in ways that are not substantially different from material disseminated in a classroom, text, or scholarly journal. Ultimately what is being considered here is the quality of the information shared and how then that information impacts on the ability of individuals and the society as a whole to make sense and meaning of the world in which they live. Consequently, when an organization chooses to make a historical claim and use it as a justification for their actions, they also assume the responsibility that goes along with representing that history as accurately as possible for the greater good of the of the public and society.

7 Hauptman (1995) makes reference to this expression (which is printed on a sign at Gardiner, NY) in the preface of his book, Tribe & Tribulations: Misconceptions About American Indians and Their Histories.

8 The practice of using Native American imagery in advertising for a wide range of products has left an indelible mark on American consumer culture. Fergus Bordewich (1996) observes that these images are so embedded in mainstream consciousness that few people pause to consider where these images originate or the implications of their continued use. He notes that "We drive 'Cherokees,' 'Winnebagos,' and 'Pontiacs...School children write on 'Big Chief' tablets.

9 In 1993, as the franchise readied itself to move into a new stadium the following year (Jacobs Field), the Cleveland ball club considered whether to continue using the Chief Wahoo logo. The day after the announcement was made that the logo would remain in use, pictures appeared in the July 1, 1993 Cleveland Plain Dealer featuring a large sign held by a fan which read "We Saved The Chief" (p. 1A). On page 2A, a picture of eight year old Michael Soeder was printed as well. He is the boy mentioned in the text of thearticle. Both pictures were taken by Plain Dealer photographer Richard Conway. The garden mentioned in the text was observed by the author on a trip to Cleveland in June of 1997.

10 According to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History(Van Tassel & Grabowski, 1996), there were four newspapers published in Cleveland in 1915. Those were the Cleveland Leader, the Cleveland News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Cleveland Press. This information was verified as well at the Cleveland Public Library on July 21, 1997.

11 In 1900, three years after Sockalexis arrived in Cleveland and fifteen years before the franchise is named the Indians, only two American Indians lived in Cleveland (Sheppard, 1993).

12  In his column entitled "Mixed Pickles," the Plain Dealer's sportswriter known only as "The Second Cook" engaged in witty repartee about the team name on several occasions (Janury 10 & 14, 1915). Noting that one fan suggested that they refer to the team as the Barons in deference to President Charley Somers, The Second Cook couldn't resist pointing out that given the team's poor performance the previous year, 'barren' might be a very good name. On January 9, 1915, an article appearing in the Cleveland Press speculated about the merits of "Twilight Sleepers", a name thought to be indicative of the napping the indicative of the napping the Naps had done in the 1914 season.

13 John McGraw's description of Sockalexis as a great "natural talent" was shared by others at the time. In an April 24, 1897 entry in The Sporting Life, Elmer Bates commented that Sockalexis' sensational throwing, marked by both consistency and sureness of aim, was attributable to "characteristics of his race in handling the bow and arrow" (p. 5). Similarly, The Sporting Life again remarked about the "naturalness" of Sockalexis' talent by publishing a headline that read: "Indian In Ball: The Race Has A Natural Inclination For Sphere Games" (p. 11). Notably, the labeling of Sockalexis as a natural talent is consistent with the pattern of racial stereotyping to which African-American athletes have often been subjected, (Eitzen & Sage, 1997).

14 To the author's knowledge, there is no account available from Sockalexis himself.

15 References to Sockalexis having given up a rightful claim as Chief of the Penobscots in order to play baseball are  inconsistent with descriptions of the Penobscot's overall form of governance. Based on anthropologist Frank Speck's (1997)definitive work, Penobscot Man, hereditary chieftancy was abandoned sometime around 1875 in favor of a two party elective system of governance.

16 Between 1897 through 1899, while Sockalexis played for the Spiders, Libbie Custer, the wife of General George Armstrong Custer of Little Big Horn fame, traveled around the country as she had done since the time of her husband's death lecturing about the battle and her husband's career (Barrett, 1996).

17 Native American author, Sherman Alexie (1993), described Native American experience as that of survival pointing out that"'s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language, and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins" (p. 49). Although the writer speaks of American Indian experience in the 1990s, the orientation expressed is worth considering relative to the manner in which Sockalexis' experience was reported by an all-white media. Among the many things written about Sockalexis in 1898, following the growing awareness that he battled a drinking problem and was not fulfilling his promise as a ballplayer, an item about Sockalexis' ancestry appeared in January of 1898 in the Sporting News. Under the headline "Sockalexis' Ancestors", the writer observed that Sockalexis came from a tribe called the Abenaki, "never very numerous, but as scalpers and wholesale murderers they had a proud and pre-eminent record." Interestingly, those depictions of Sockalexis carry forward to 1992, when a book freely modeled on Sockalexis' life entitled The Cleveland Indian: The Legend of King Saturday (Salisbury, 1992) was published. On the jacket of the book, the main character, called King Saturday, is described as a con man, a drunk, a brawler, a hero, a schemer, and a murderer. Although a work of fiction, Sockalexis' picture appears on the cover of the book. 

18 An article entitled "The Original Cleveland Indian" written by Jack DeVries was published in Game Face magazine in August of 1997. DeVries reports that in a January 18, 1915 article in the Plain Dealer, the Indians "name" "was to honor the first Native American to play in the Major Leagues." Upon reviewing the mentioned 1915 article from the Plain Dealer, which appears in the editorial section of the newspaper rather than the sports section, the interpretation present in Game Face Magazine alters the meaning of the published 1915 passage and deserves careful attention. Below is the first paragraph from the 1915 article:

Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club. As batter, fielder and base runner he was a marvel. Sockalexis so far outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The "fans" throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders the "Indians." It was an honorable name, and while it stuck the team made an excellent record (emphasis added).

19 It is notable that despite the national spotlight shining on Cleveland during the 1997 season due to the city and franchise's hosting of the All-Star Game, record attendance, and a team performance that would eventually lead to an appearance in the World Series, the article about Sockalexis is published toward the end of regular season.


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This article appears here with the expressed permission of the author.
Many thanks to Dr. Staurowsky for her gracious contributions to these pages.

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