Church leaders welcome baseball name change in Cleveland
Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team will take the field in 2022 with a new name: Guardians.
United Church of Christ leaders welcomed the team’s July 23 announcement. For decades, the denomination has pressed for the name “Indians” to be replaced.
It’s been 30 years, in fact, since the UCC General Synod first spoke out — in July 1991 — against the “negative stereotyping of Native Americans” in sports and commerce.
Now, instead of using a name that sometimes brings out fans in face paint and fake feather headdresses, the Cleveland team will take inspiration from iconic statues on a bridge near its stadium: the Guardians of Traffic.
The Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president, responded with a Facebook post from his vacation travels: “Today I give thanks for every person over the decades who fought relentlessly to make this happen. Change comes — sometimes only after never giving up and spending years trying to alter the hearts and minds of those who inflict harm on others with utter disregard for how that other person feels or is affected by their abuse.”
“The arc of history bends toward justice,” he added. “We can all change for the better if we but remain open to the goodness in us all — believing it for ourselves and fighting to maintain it for all others.”
Years of advocacy
The development caps long efforts by Indigenous people to call for the team to drop its red-faced logo — it did so in 2018 — and change its name. The UCC offered years of support to the cause:
- Soon after the Synod’s 1991 resolution, UCC leaders met with team officials to ask for a change.
- When those talks failed, UCC staffers and members were among those who joined periodic Indigenous-led demonstrations outside the team’s current and previous stadiums.
- Current and past UCC bodies offered advocacy and staff support for demonstrations and annual conferences on racism and negative stereotyping.
- They also helped strategize and fund the legal fight for demonstrations to be allowed near today’s Progressive Field.
- Among the agencies speaking out and participating were the Coordinating Center for Women in Church and Society; the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries and its Division of the American Missionary Association; the Commission for Racial Justice; the Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries; the Office of the President; the Executive Council; the Council for American Indian Ministry; and Justice and Local Church Ministries.
‘We honor their journey’
For the Rev. Velda Love, UCC minister for racial justice, a biblical quote from Isaiah came to mind: “Those who wait for the Lord gain new strength.” “Waiting on God has sustained and strengthened our sisters and brothers of Native American descent,” she said. “We celebrate with them and honor their journey to have the offensive logo and name of the Cleveland baseball team officially changed.
“One of the ways to honor one’s cultural and ancestral legacy is to resist the erasure of your people. White settler colonialism has done irrefutable harm for generations across the North American continent to Native American tribes. … UCC racial justice ministries will continue to support and advocate with our Native American siblings to restore justice for all.”
Especially remembered for her leadership in the 1990s and early 2000s is the late Juanita Helphrey, a member of CAIM and of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, who served on the UCBHM and Justice and Witness Ministries staffs. The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a JWM colleague of Helphrey’s and later an officer of the UCC, called her “an early, fierce, and formidable leader in this up-a-mountain, decades-long fight for this name and logo change.”
“Today is all about her legacy for me,” said Guess, who now heads the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, in a Facebook post responding to the team’s announcement. “I learned so much from her. A true visionary and champion for racial justice and dignity for native people, I wish she could have lived to see the fruits of her persistent, unapologetic labors when so few thought this day would/could ever be possible. She is surely singing and shouting joy today from the great beyond.”
Women led the way
The Rev. Mary Susan Gast, now retired in Benicia, Calif., recalled a 1990 UCC women’s assembly where Indigenous parents presented a study on negative stereotyping and its harm to children. CCW brought the resolution to the 1991 Synod — and Gast was installed as CCW’s leader about that same time.
“Consequently my public welcome to Cleveland came in the sports section of The Plain Dealer, where a columnist dubbed me — along with Juanita Helphrey and (CRJ’s) Bernice Powell Jackson — ‘leg-breakers’ for our overtures to address the racism underlying the name of the baseball team, and the damage inflicted by the name,” Gast said. “Over the years, so many UCC national staff and UCC members took up the often unpopular cause with conversations, education, and public witness.
“My first reaction when I heard the news of the name change was that surely Juanita and American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks were leading the shouts in heaven. Then I was flooded with memories of all the people who had done such significant and ongoing work, people like [past national staff members] Marti Hunter and Ferne Clements as well as the national executives who never wavered in support.
“And I give thanks for the women who brought their concern for their children and grandchildren to a wider group of women, who then brought it to the whole church, so that we could all engage with one another around this particular intersection of faith with justice.”
What the team learned
The renaming marks an evolution in the team’s thinking. For years, the team contended its name “honored” a 19th-century Indigenous player, Louis Sockalexis — a claim now seen as demonstrably false.
By contrast, with its “Guardians” announcement, the team unveiled an entire section of its website devoted to the naming. It said a process of “Native American listening and learning” informed the change. The team said it had “engaged a number of representatives of the Native American community including local and national organizations, leading researchers, and individuals willing to share their personal stories, as well as several local civic leaders.” “While views may have differed,” it said, “there were several consistent themes that surfaced throughout the majority of our discussions.”
“Many of the Native Americans we spoke with described feeling as though the true narrative of their people – the story of who they are – has been erased and replaced by things like our team name,” it said in a list of several findings. “For local Native families, the name can make it especially challenging for children to find a place for their Native identity in the community around them.”
‘Valued and fully seen’
Among the Indigenous groups the team consulted were three whose lead the UCC has followed over the years: the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, the Lake Erie Native American Council and the American Indian Movement of Ohio. Together, they now make up the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition, together with a fourth member, the Lake Erie Professional Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
“Today, we stand with our heads held high and full of gratitude to those who came before us in this fight,” the Coalition said in a July 23 statement. “Our community has worked tirelessly to be recognized as diverse and vibrant, instead of being portrayed in inaccurate and harmful ways. This name change will help create a place where Native American children and their families are valued and fully seen.
“We are pleased the Cleveland baseball team took a comprehensive approach to listen and learn and show it is possible to take steps toward change. Now we call on the nearly 200 schools in Ohio with Native mascots to follow suit.”
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