CLEVELAND — Mr. Chief Wahoo walked through the concourse behind center field on a July night, unrecognized.
No hugs or high-fives from beer-sipping fans on a July night. No requests from their children for photos or autographs.
Pedro Rodriguez had reluctantly given up donning the garb he had worn, in some form, to baseball games for two decades: a headdress adorned with red and blue feathers, a custom-made sweatshirt with “FEAR THE CHIEF” scrawled across its front, a face meticulously painted to resemble the Cleveland Indians’ logo.
Officially, Rodriguez, like the team he so adores, has distanced himself from Wahoo — a caricature of a Native American chief that some consider the most egregious image in sports.
Unofficially, both for him and for the team, shedding their attachment to Wahoo is not that simple.
On Tuesday, the Indians arrive in Washington for a two-game series, bringing Cleveland fans and their Wahoo regalia to Nationals Park. They will play in a city where another professional team, the Washington Redskins, has long been the prime target of activists opposed to Indian imagery in athletics.
While many colleges and high schools across the country have renamed teams and dropped Native American mascots, professional clubs — the Redskins, Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks — have resisted.
[Inside the fight between Daniel Snyder and Redskins name protesters]
Cleveland has, however, gradually reduced Wahoo’s presence — sort of.
At Progressive Field, a name that protesters find deeply ironic, the image rarely appears on signs or in concourses, and owner Paul Dolan announced in the spring that a “Block C” would become the team’s primary logo. On the Indians’ official website, a five-part, 5,600-word team history that begins in 1901 does not mention Wahoo once.
But in the team’s store and online, the Indians continue to sell gear that features the logo, generating millions of dollars in revenue, and the chief’s face appears on players’ jerseys and, often, on their caps.
Tara Houska, a tribal lawyer and prominent activist, finds no imagery in sports more offensive than Wahoo. He has blood-red skin, swollen cheeks, triangular eyes, a bulbous nose, an expansive grin and a single feather protruding from the back of his head.
“It really is just a blatant racial caricature,” said Houska, who lives in the District.
Rodriguez, 49, did not always sympathize with Native Americans’ objections, but over the past two years, he has tried to. His evolving, often contradictory perspective illustrates just how complex this city’s relationship is with its most beloved and loathed symbol.
On April 4, 2014, at an annual opening-day demonstration outside the stadium, Rodriguez was filmed and photographed in full Wahoo garb arguing with a Native American activist.
“Would you wear blackface out in public?” one protester asked and then showed Rodriguez an image of an African American caricature condemned as bigoted a half-century ago.
“What’s the difference?” the man pressed.
Rodriguez shrugged and then pointed at the blackface.
“That’s not the name of our team,” he said. “It’s the Indians. We are the Indians.”
The tense exchange went viral. Radio hosts and online commenters skewered him: “idiot,” “racist,” “a--hole.”
He wore the costume to the first home game in 2015, but he could not bear to face the activists again. This year, he apologized to Native American protesters on Opening Day and promised to never wear his headdress and face paint again.
“I just felt it was the right thing to do,” said Rodriguez, who has endured years of racism because of his Puerto Rican heritage.
But he still could not give up the Wahoo logo, not entirely.
As a kid in New York, Rodriguez had bounced around foster homes until, at age 12, he was adopted and moved to Cleveland. His commitment to the Indians helped him fit in. He remembers the first blue and red Wahoo cap he got as a teenager. He remembers how cold it was on Opening Day in 1983, when George Vukovich hit a grand slam. He remembers the high-fives and photo requests that became routine when he started wearing face paint to games a decade later.
“Mr. Chief Wahoo,” people called him, and it felt good when they did.
So that’s why, as Rodriguez walked in obscurity through the concourse, he still wore a blue cap that featured the image of a smiling, red-faced Indian.
Philip Yenyo began protesting the logo almost three decades ago, but Wahoo’s presence in Cleveland remains ubiquitous.
“It’s absolutely everywhere,” said Yenyo, 50, an artist and member of the Mexica tribe. “You can’t escape it.”
Not long ago, he walked into a Subway and ordered a tuna sandwich. Next to the register, he noticed a stack of collectible Indians’ cups.
He told the man taking his order that the store should reconsider selling them. Yenyo, who has a square jaw and long dark hair, picked one up and motioned at the logo.
“Does that look like me?” he asked.
Cleveland City Council member Zack Reed, who is black, has campaigned to change Wahoo for years and recently pushed legislation that makes it more difficult for the team to display the logo on public light poles.
“Take the old black Sambo and Chief Wahoo and put them up together,” Reed said. “They’re identical.”
Yenyo compares the image to caricatures the Nazis used to dehumanize Jews. He dismisses the Indians’ pronouncements about reducing Wahoo’s role because they still make so much money from the merchandise.
The team is valued at $800 million and brings in more than $200 million a year in revenue, according to Forbes. Half of the six top-selling hats on the Indians’ website display Wahoo, as do all three of the top collectibles. In the stadium’s team store, items bearing the logo include bats, baseballs, patches, stickers, magnets, koozies, keychains, coffee mugs, shot glasses, bobbleheads, garden flags, foam fingers, plush dolls, pennants, onesies, bibs (“I may be little . . . but I’m a huge fan”), miniature pink dresses (“all dressed up for the game”) and snuggle toys (“Indians baby”).
Team officials declined to answer questions about Wahoo, saying in a statement to The Washington Post that they “continue to research our fan base to better understand their perception and stance on the logo, but at present time have no plans of making a change.”
The club has been called the “Indians” since 1915, but Wahoo was not born until 1947. Protests — and litigation against the team — date to the 1970s. Earlier this year, one group asked the courts to strip Cleveland of its trademark protections, mirroring a suit filed against the Redskins that remains under appeal. In 2014, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board denounced Wahoo, arguing that it was “time for a clean break.”
Yet Native Americans here — just like those in Atlanta, Chicago and Kansas City — have been unable to apply as much pressure on the local team as activists have over the past three years on the Redskins.
The national effort targeted Washington for a number of strategic reasons: The team is rooted in the nation’s capital, a historically liberal city; the region is covered by hundreds of prominent media organizations; “Redskins” is a dictionary-defined racial slur.
“That should be the lowest hanging fruit,” said Houska, the Native American activist.
[President Obama: ‘I’d think about changing’ the Redskins’ name]
The campaign has won the support of President Obama, 50 U.S. senators, high-profile sports commentators and civil rights leaders. But their cause suffered a blow earlier this year when a Washington Post poll found that 9 in 10 Native Americans were not offended by the name and that 7 in 10 were not bothered by Indian imagery in sports.
The Post survey did not ask about Wahoo, but Houska can’t fathom how anyone could objectively defend it.
Just inside the entrance of a museum five miles east of Progressive Field, a 28-foot metal figure is fastened to a high brick wall. Outlined in neon, it depicts a baseball player holding a bat, preparing to swing. And atop its shoulders is a hot-tub-size Wahoo head.
When the Indians elected not to bring the now 54-year-old object with them to their new stadium in 1994, the Western Reserve Historical Society adopted it.
To the figure’s right, on a plaque titled “Enthusiasm! That’s Chief Wahoo!,” the Save Our Chief fan group wrote: “In other times, American culture has belittled non-white races purposefully; most assuredly, racist thoughts are not with today’s Indians fan when wearing a Chief Wahoo cap, shirt, or jacket.”
To its left, on a plaque titled “The Legacy of Racism Continues,” a committee of Native Americans wrote: “Whatever the real reasons for racial antipathy and discrimination, they are seldom admitted by the guilty parties even when they themselves are aware of the reasons.”
Rodriguez climbed to the top row of Section 182 to chat with the Indians’ most ardent supporter, John Adams, who has beaten a 26-inch wooden bass drum at more than 3,300 games.
A Native American, Adams said, once yelled at him, contending that his use of the drum was inappropriate because the instrument is sacred to Indians.
He ignored it, just as he does the periodic rumors that Wahoo’s end is nigh.
“I grew up with this,” said Adams, who, like Rodriguez, was wearing the logo on his cap. “You can’t do anything in the world without offending somebody.”
At the conversation’s end, Rodriguez headed back toward center field, where he turned a corner and saw a man dressed in a brown, faux suede Native American costume laced with fringes. Poking from his headdress were red, white and black feathers.
Rodriguez opened his mouth and then shut it. He shook his head.
“It’s weird,” Mr. Chief Wahoo muttered, “to see somebody else wearing that thing.”
He asked the man in the headdress, Tray Gabriel, if he was a real Indians fan.
“Oh, yeah,” the 25-year-old Army veteran responded.
And how long had he been one?
“Since I came out of the womb.”
He first wore his Indian costume to a game last year, and people swarmed him for photographs. It felt good.
But Gabriel, who is black, had never thought much about how Native Americans might view him, nor had he been asked the question Rodriguez was two years ago: What’s the difference between Wahoo and the racist caricatures of African Americans?
“You know, umm,” he said and then paused. “I guess, yeah. I guess so. It’s tough. I guess that’s true.”
Then, as Gabriel considered the question, a young woman wearing a pair of Wahoo earrings approached with her 22-month-old nephew.
“Can I get a picture?” she asked.
Of course, he said, then moved next to her.
The woman took out her phone, and as both looked at the screen, they smiled.