Cleveland’s Indigenous community celebrates Guardians name change and hopes schools with Native mascots follow suit


CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cynthia Connolly is a Clevelander who loves baseball, but she hasn’t been able to root for the hometown team.

“I have not been to a single Cleveland baseball game, specifically because I felt very uncomfortable entering the stadium during games,” said Connolly, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians located in northern Michigan.

But now, Connolly and other members of Cleveland’s Indigenous community are looking forward to enjoying games at Progressive Field, as they feel dignified by Friday’s news that the Cleveland Indians are changing their name to the Cleveland Guardians.

“It’s going to be something very special for me to share a baseball game with my 11-year-old son and my 9-year-old daughter,” said Philip Yenyo, of the Mēxihcah nation, who was born and raised in Cleveland and has been advocating for the team to change its name since 1991. “I really wanted to take them to a game, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take them to a game where the fans are ridiculing who they are as human beings.”

Connolly said members of Cleveland’s Indigenous community won’t necessarily become Guardians fans overnight, since it might take them some time to process the change and begin to heal after “over 60 years of trauma and torment that we’ve been dealing with.”

Yenyo is the executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, and both he and Connolly are members of the Lake Erie Native American Council. Those groups are joined by the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance and the Lake Erie Professional Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in making up the Cleveland Indigenous Coalition. The coalition has worked with the baseball team in conversations about the name change in recent years.

“When we started our meeting with Mr. [Paul] Dolan, I said, ‘I’ve prayed for this day for so long,’” Yenyo said. “And this is a prayer come true.”

In a statement, the Coalition said the name change was “the culmination of over 60 years of grassroots advocacy and activism by Indigenous leadership.

“Today, we stand with our heads held high and full of gratitude to those who came before us in this fight. 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.”

Both Connolly and Yenyo praised the team for the effort they put in to understanding why the name was harmful and embarking on a mission to change it.

“They really took the time to understand why these team names and mascots are harmful [by] really digging into the research, into the data, talking with national Native organizations, local Indigenous groups, really doing their homework and understanding genuinely why these are harmful,” Connolly said. “I think if you do the same work, you will realize that these Native mascots just are not promoting equity or inclusion.”

Research shows that Native American team names and logos reflect and reinforce harmful racial stereotypes about Native people, Connolly said.

“These images have been found to contribute to low self-esteem, low community worth, increased negative feelings of stress and depression in Native people, and especially Native youth. The findings were exacerbated for Native youth,” Connolly said.

That’s why local activists are now turning their attention to the dozens of schools in Ohio with Native mascots or Indigenous-themed teams, hoping they might follow the lead of the Cleveland baseball team. Those could include names like Warriors, Braves, Arrows, Chiefs or Tribe, or slurs such as “Redskins” or “Redmen.” In Greater Cleveland, that includes Cuyahoga Heights, Copley, Parma and Walsh Jesuit High School.

“If you’re a school administrator, a teacher or on a school board, your job is to make sure that these students are able to achieve their best selves, to be their best selves,” Connolly said. “Your job is to make sure that non-Native students have it easy to make good choices – not bad choices like donning headdresses and warpaint and doing Tomahawk chops at their sports games.”

Chris Begay, of the Diné nation, is the chair of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance and has been involved in the movement to change the Cleveland team’s name for more than 30 years. He said the name change is a milestone, but just one small part of Native American activism in Cleveland.

“There’s a lot of miseducation that continues to be taught to young individuals, from kindergarten all the way through college,” Begay said. “A lot of times, people feel that Native Americans don’t even exist anymore. And this movement is about making sure that we are giving Indigenous people an opportunity to reclaim their own identity.”

Other issues in the Native American community include missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially women, water rights, protecting land and water from pipeline oil spills, and regaining land stolen with broken treaties. “But if people think you’re just a caricature, you’re nothing more than something to look at – not something to be heard,” Begay said.

Yenyo said he was misinformed in the Cleveland public school system about his own Native people, which he views as a symptom of systemic racism.

“I learned that my people were extinct,” Yenyo said. “People put us back into the 1800s. They think of us as feathered and leathered, and they don’t see us in present day, as we are in present times… And it wasn’t until I went to my first powwow and saw the Community of 500 Years [of Dignity and Resistance] table there and educated myself.”

Yenyo hopes Native activism in Cleveland, including conversations around the team name change, can help people unlearn some of the harmful lessons they’ve been taught.

“We speak to a lot of different people,” he said. “When they get it, you can see that light bulb go off in their eyes. It is a wonderful thing to affect somebody in a positive way like that, to reach their heart, their spirit, their soul, in their mind, and get them to realize that what’s been going on is wrong.”