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Protestors voice their opinion about Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo outside Progressive Field, April 4, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Protestors voice their opinion about Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo outside Progressive Field, April 4, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The growing movement to boycott indigenous team mascots Add to ...

When the Sportsnet broadcaster Jamie Campbell announced on Twitter this week that he would be joining those who are conscientiously objecting to the use of “the name of the Cleveland baseball team” – that is, the Indians – he punctuated his tweet with the hashtag #NotYourMascot.

It turns out that even some of those who’ve been in the Cleveland Indians organization are offended by the use of their own mascot.

On Thursday, Mark Shapiro, who left his position as president of the Indians last year to become president and chief executive of the Toronto Blue Jays, revealed that, when he was with the Cleveland team, its controversial mascot – a buck-toothed, red-faced grotesquerie known as Chief Wahoo – was “troubling to me personally.”

Read more: From Indians to Eskimos: A brief history of controversial team names

Opinion – Cleveland Indians: Indigenous mascots are nothing to cheer about

Early in his career, working as a team spokesman, “I distanced myself from the fact that it personally bothered me,” he said. Eventually, under his leadership, the team replaced Chief Wahoo – considered by some to be a piece of racist iconography right out of Jim Crow America – with a block letter C as the primary logo. “I’m proud of that,” he said, taking care to note that he was just offering his opinion, since he was no longer part of the team. “I think there will be a day, whenever that is, that the people who are making decisions [in Cleveland] decide that Chief Wahoo’s no longer fitting. But people in this city, over 90 per cent of them are deeply, deeply passionate about Chief Wahoo and wanted it to be part of their team.”

This week, though, those deep passions have run headlong into a movement that, in Canada at least, has quickly jumped from the fringes of social media to the mainstream. And while the Indians, like the Washington Redskins and other sports teams that have come under fire in recent years, are refusing to budge, there is a growing belief that First Nations names and iconography are no longer appropriate for such use in 2016.

The battle pits traditionalists against those promoting increased cultural sensitivity, often with the urgency and viral appeal to emotion of hashtag advocacy. And it comes amid a season in which Toronto is perhaps feeling particularly motivated to address racial sensitivities, after reports of some Blue Jays fans yelling ugly epithets at a Korean and two African-American members of the Baltimore Orioles.

Though the fight has been playing out for decades, the movement for change has gained traction in recent years. Last November, Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said it was time for sports teams to recognize the harm that names such as the Redskins have on young indigenous people. This week, the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane called on news organizations to abstain from using the Cleveland team’s name.

Shame is one tool at the disposal of protesters, but the teams may also find themselves motivated to make changes if they find they can no longer cash in on the intellectual property, such as names and logos. In 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, acting on a complaint by Native American activists, cancelled six trademarks owned by the Washington Redskins on the grounds that they were disparaging to that minority community. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an application by the Redskins to hear an appeal of the decision.

Mr. Campbell is perhaps the highest profile broadcaster to declare a boycott of such team names, in advance of the American League Championship Series pitting Cleveland against Toronto, which begins Friday. His decision was inspired by the long-time Blue Jays radio broadcaster Jerry Howarth, who revealed earlier in the week that he hasn’t used the Indians name – or referred to the Atlanta baseball team by their name, the Braves – for more than two decades.

Others quickly followed, including CBC Radio’s Scott Regehr, who was inspired in part by his indigenous colleague Jesse Wente noting sharply in an on-air interview that, contrary to the suggestions of some traditionalists, “these symbols don’t honour us.”

“I’ve lived in different parts of Canada – Yellowknife, Whitehorse – where there are large First Nations populations,” Mr. Regehr said in an interview on Thursday. “I have many, many friends within that group, and I know that if I were to ever use the word ‘Indian’ in common conversation, I would be told: ‘No, we’re First Nations, we’re aboriginal people. We’re not ‘Indian.’ A number of them find it repugnant. So I’m not interested in using the name any more, in association with the Cleveland baseball team.”

He added that, after announcing his decision on Wednesday’s broadcast, he had received a heartfelt letter of thanks from a mother from northern Alberta who identified as Métis. “We can never put ourselves in the shoes of a visible minority and know how they’re feeling about things,” he said.

On Thursday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne tweeted that she was “taking a swing at Cleveland’s team name,” and thanked Jerry Howarth for “standing up to hurtful, racist names.”

Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns the Blue Jays, is backing the decisions of Mr. Howarth, Mr. Campbell and whoever else might choose to join them. (The on-air team at Toronto soft-rock station CHFI-FM, which is owned by Rogers, declared they too would abstain from saying the Cleveland team name.) “Jerry’s position is something we support,” said Scott Moore, the president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties. “This has been a big discussion point for many years, and we’ve discussed it with the commentators in the past and have left it to their discretion and their personal decision.”

Down in Cleveland, there are few signs of a groundswell for change, even though a small annual protest has been held each opening day of at least the past 25 Indians’ seasons. “It’s not a front-page issue here,” observed Doug Lesmerises, a sports columnist with Cleveland.com.

It was only bubbling up now, he suggested, because the Indians are finally winning. “They haven’t been to the World Series since 1997, and in the ensuing two decades I feel like this discussion has advanced – like the discussion of the Redskins name. And I feel the Indians haven’t been part of it because they haven’t been that relevant, as a team.”

“If the Indians make the World Series, would it perhaps be the beginning of the end of Chief Wahoo, and perhaps the name, because all of a sudden them [winning] brings more of a spotlight on this issue?” Mr. Lesmerises mused.

“The city has been having a renaissance, to a degree, having just successfully hosted the Republican National Convention; the Cavs just won their first [NBA] title in 52 years; the Indians are having the best season in two decades. And we’re talking about if their name and their logo are affected,” he noted. “The discussion is completely legitimate. But is that what you want to be talking about, when your city and your team are succeeding? I would think not.”

With a report from Robert MacLeod in Cleveland

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