In the latest episode of corporate wokeness fixing a problem that doesn’t actually exist, the Major League Baseball team the Cleveland Indians is changing its name after having used the moniker for 105 years.
This follows the decision by the Washington Redskins of the National Football League to change their name this season. Whatever you think of that decision by what is now the Washington Football Team, it is plainly obvious that these two cases are nothing alike.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the term “Indian” to indicate a Native American is not even remotely racist. Just to cite just one example, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is named what it is named precisely because American Indian is the term preferred by many Native Americans. Should the museum also change its allegedly offensive name? Of course not.
The closest thing to a sensible argument about why we should not use the term “Indian” to describe Native Americans is that it is rooted in a mistake made by Christopher Columbus, who as we all know by now was a horrible racist whose name should never be uttered. But so what? That was 500 years ago. And in the time since, the American Indian, though in many cases badly mistreated by the United States government, also became a central part of American history and legend. That is what we really risk losing in this damnation of history.
If the logic of renaming the Redskins, even though polling showed Native Americans were not offended by the word, was to ensure that non-Native Americans only referred to America’s first people respectfully, then what is the logic behind renaming the Indians? It is basically that non-Native American people shouldn’t be talking about Native Americans at all. The word “Indian” itself has now become cultural appropriation.
This is a dangerous road to go down. The clear message is that we must all be extremely careful when we even dare to discuss American Indians, and in fact, unless we have that “lived experienced” we should probably just shut up about it.
For most of American history Indians have played a central cultural role. We see them on state flags, in the names of our towns and rivers, and in our collective mythology. The United States has no Knights of the Round Table, no castles, no ancient Roman ruins. Most of our oldest mythologies involve Indians, from the story of Thanksgiving, to Pocahontas, to the settling of the West and all of the stories, movies, and TV shows about them.
If we have now reached the point where the word “Indians” cannot appear on a baseball jersey, then clearly everyone from teachers to content creators will have to tread very carefully in engaging the subject. The upshot may very well be that many people don’t think its worth the risk, and just avoid the subject.
The cultural legacy of Native Americans in the United States is complicated. At its worst, it called upon images of savagery, even the “noble savage” trope, a morally pure figure, but one with little self agency, was more than a bit questionable by today’s standards. But at its best, the example of the American Indian has imbued the American psyche with a respect for this land that is unique in the Western world. That is a legacy that we should continue to cherish and we can’t do that if people are afraid to even utter the word “Indian.”
Ultimately this is always the problem with the concept of cultural appropriation. When told often enough that one is misusing or should not be engaging with aspects of a culture many inevitably throw up their hands and just say, “Fine, then I’ll ignore it.” In this particular case that would be a terrible result for the very concept of what being an American is.
This decision by the brass of Cleveland’s ball club does the country a great disservice. It is just another attempt to divide us, to push the pernicious lie that cultures are private property and not the shared legacy of humanity. There is nothing even remotely offensive about the word “Indian.” It is no different from Notre Dame’s Football Team being called the “Irish.”
Now they will have to settle on a new name, one that causes no controversy, one that embraces our new culturally segregated reality. I’m sure the search for a new name will be exhaustive and exhausting, but I’ll throw out an idea. The Cleveland Cowards has a nice and truthful ring to it.