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Dolan Defends Logo That Students Call Racist

Indian's Owner Debates Logo with Students

by Nick Stillman

The air was thick with tension when a small invitation-only group of students and faculty met with Cleveland Indians owner and Oberlin College trustee Larry Dolan Tuesday Dec. 19. Members who were chosen to participate in the discussion have criticized Dolan for continuing to use the Chief Wahoo symbol as the Indians mascot. Those in opposition see Wahoo as a racist caricature of Native Americans.

Surprisingly, the most strained moment of the afternoon may have come before the meeting actually began when Visiting Asssistant Professor of Art Will Wilson and Dean of Students Peter Goldsmith became engaged in an argument over whether Wilson would be allowed to tape record the meeting and take photographs.

Everyone present agreed to a taping of the discussion for archival purposes and senior Pauline Shapiro was allowed to take photographs throughout the discussion.

Professor of rhetoric and composition Laurie McMillin, who acted as moderator, warned against such tiffs between the panel members and Dolan, saying, "I remind us that a dialogue involves an exchange of ideas."

Senior Amber Schulz, co-chair of Oberlin's American Indian Council, began the discussion by reading a prepared statement in which she expressed concern over Dolan's status as a trustee representing the College. She continued to cite two different types of protesters of the issue - one designed to garner media attention, the other attempting constructive dialogue.

One of the most poignant moments of the discussion came when Dolan's son Paul said, "Whether or not [Chief Wahoo] is offensive is not really a debate. Whether it's racist is really the crux of the issue." Wilson, a Native American, then donned a Chief Wahoo mask, saying, "I do have a hard time with the image and I think it's racist. This image of a human being I don't think is appropriate."

Dolan, who seemed calm throughout the emotionally charged discussion, recalled his time spent in the Southwest, where he claimed he saw Native Americans wearing the Indians logo. "I firmly reject that Wahoo is racist. I see that it makes some Natives uncomfortable - clearly not all. I think I understand racism when I see it."

Professor of jazz studies Peter Dominguez retorted that during his visits to the Cleveland Native American Christian party, none of the children he encountered were wearing the logo. "These children are born into an identity - they get ridiculed and get teased - that's where the symbol is damaging," he said.

Dominguez accused Dolan of ignoring the voice of Cleveland-based Native Americans and read several statements he had collected from them. One read, "The trouble with caricatures is that people think that's what we look like."

Dolan later said, "I look on [Wahoo] as positive. I have a warm, affectionate attitude toward Wahoo."

Dominguez responded, saying, "There's no positive meaning in caricature," and asked Dolan if he thought caricatures could ever be positive. Dolan said they could be, concluding, "It isn't clear to me that it's offensive to Natives."

Dolan pointed out the difficulty the Indians organization and fans would have in accepting that their mascot may carry racist implications and predicted that Cleveland would react with outrage if the mascot were changed. However, he said, "If we were the RedskinsÉthe day after I owned the team the name would have been changed."

Several times Dolan argued that Natives don't universally find the symbol offensive, claiming this weakened his incentive to take action. Schulz pointed out the difficulty of uniting Natives to form a solid voice of opposition to the Wahoo mascot and Dolan retorted that African Americans were able to unite strongly for the Civil Rights battle.

When Schulz said that Natives didn't have the strong leaders African Americans did, Dolan argued that the panel was asking him to do their work for them, and that they needed to form a more unified opposition.

The discussion ended on a positive note, as Dolan claimed he wished to further educate himself on the issue of insensitivity toward Natives and asked the panel to suggest appropriate reading material. Schulz presented him with a packet of information regarding Cleveland-based Natives. She later said the packet included commentary from non-native people like Catholics who also cite Chief Wahoo as an offensive caricature.

"I don't think he can understand how harmful it is to American Indian children in Cleveland and how they have to face this every day," Schulz later said. Still, Schulz conceded that Dolan seemed sincerely interested in understanding her position. "He seemed really genuine," she said.

"I think he was open-minded," McMillin later said. "He said he wanted to be educated and I believe he was sincere. He showed a lot of humility."

McMillin said that the discussion went more smoothly than she originally expected. "I tried to prepare for conflict but it seemed like people were respectful. It was a very civil conversation."

Schulz cited the small size of the group as accountable for the calm and civil nature of the dialogue. "I think it was structured well," she said. "There was a nice number of people - I didn't want to overwhelm him."

Regarding her ultimate goal in meeting with Dolan, Schulz said, "The only goal is to change the mascot, but that's such a huge goal. Maybe a start is something just as small as getting Oberlin to recognize [the issue]." She also said she will proceed by writing Dolan a letter so as to retain an open dialogue with him. "I'm going to do this however he's most comfortable," she said.

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Copyright © 2001, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 129, Number 13, February 9, 2001

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