AMERICAN INDIANS. The tiny Indian community of early 20th-century Cleveland was largely a transient one. (For previous Indian residents of the WESTERN RESERVE area, see PREHISTORIC INHABITANTS.) Census statistics show only 2 Indians resident in the city in 1900; 48 in 1910; and 34 in 1920. On the eve of World War II, 47 American Indians resided in Cuyahoga County. Members of the various Indian tribes of the eastern U.S. moved into and out of Cleveland, either individually or in family units, in response to prevailing economic conditions (see ECONOMY). The most common pattern found men moving to Cleveland to work for a few years in INDUSTRY. Once in the city, they often assimilated into urban life, in many cases completely eschewing identification as Indian, to avoid discrimination and hostility. Later, these Indians typically returned to their reservations or to the region where their families still resided, taking their accumulated savings. By the Depression of the 1930s, the Indian population in Cleveland was still small, with an informal group residing on the near east side. These people looked to a humanitarian, CHIEF THUNDERWATER, as their leader.
The city's Indian community increased notably following World War II. In 1950 109 resided in the city, and an additional 57 elsewhere in Cuyahoga County. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the city's Indian population multiplied, many men joined together in clubs. These clubs, whose locus was often small "Indian" taverns, provided camaraderie and fellowship, SPORTS, family events, and mutual assistance. The Indian population in Cleveland increased even more significantly in the late 1950s, a trend that continued until the 1970s. By 1960 the city population was 391, and the total county population 464, the direct result of the federal government's new program of "Termination and Relocation." Many federal officials believed that money spent maintaining reservations for Native Americans could be better used in paying the national debt and in fighting the Cold War. The government in Washington opted for a new implementation of an old policy: a speeded-up assimilation of the Indian population into the dominant culture, to be brought about by the termination of the federal trust. By this new policy, Indians would move from their reservations and relocate, with the assistance of the federal government, in urban America. It was anticipated, albeit incorrectly, that reservations would be ultimately liquidated.
The Relocation Services Program, administered through the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Interior Department, designated Cleveland as one of the 8 cities in which to resettle reservation Indians. The bureau established an office in Cleveland in late 1952 to administer the relocation, which included housing, jobs, and training programs. Over 5,000 individuals were settled in Cleveland as a result. They also came from a variety of tribes but, unlike the pre-World War II residents, were more likely to have come from the West. American Indian young people joined the national and local trend toward increased participation in HIGHER EDUCATION; their college registration rose by 200%. Many went on to graduate and professional schools. This trend exposed Indian students to the civil-rights movement, particularly fervent on college campuses in the 1960s. Activists pointed out bitterly that of all minority groups in the U.S., the American Indians were the poorest: 3 out of 5 lived below the federally established poverty line.
Russell Means, a Dakota Sioux, emerged as a leader in Cleveland. A founding member of the American Indian Movement, an activist group drawing members from across the nation, Means also began a local organization in 1969 to unite the Indian community of Cleveland, which then numbered nearly 1,200. He hoped that the CLEVELAND AMERICAN INDIAN CENTER would be a place where the city's Indians could gather and celebrate and preserve native traditions. The center first operated as a social organization, then as a cultural and social-service center during the 1970s, rapidly becoming a publicly visible center for local Indian activity. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the center's role was changing. The combination of greatly decreased federal funds and increased cultural awareness among the Indian community in Cleveland convinced many to return to reservations, where they could live and work near their families. The center, obliged to reduce social-service programs, now guided members in utilizing existing public services. Its activities increasingly focused upon job-training and placement and cultural programs.
The average Indian individual who moved to Cleveland after 1950 had to struggle to gain a satisfactory education, job security, and a comfortable life, both materially and emotionally. As a group, American Indians, nationally as well as in Cleveland, were plagued by a host of socioeconomic problems common also among other disadvantaged groups—poor education, inadequate housing, low pay, and alcoholism. Some merely foundered, caught precariously between a safer but economically desperate existence in the Indian world, and a white world which they could neither understand nor accept. For others, activism seemed the best method of addressing pressing concerns. Yet another large group of relocated Indians did not see activism as the answer for themselves or for their families, nor did they judge it the best and most pragmatic solution to the myriad of problems facing them in urban America. Instead they chose to identify less strongly as Indians. Often marrying non-Indians, they sought avenues by which to find a home in, and the acceptance of, mainstream America.
In 1980 U.S. census figures put the Native American population of Greater Cleveland at 1,603. In the 1990 census, their number had risen to 2,706. The growing numbers spurred creation of a new organization to represent the community, the Lake Erie Native American Council (LENAC). Founded in 1990, it served as a clearinghouse for programs affecting the local Native American Community.
At the same time another group, the 500-Year Committee, an organization composed of many ethnicities dedicated to combating insensitivity to Native-American concerns, was beginning to target the Cleveland baseball team's use of the name "Indians" and of its Chief Wahoo logo. The name and logo are found demeaning to Native Americans, who believe that no ethnic group should be reduced to mascot status.
LENAC members joined with the committee in a series of protests to call attention to their concern. Each year their campaign began with a protest held at Cleveland Stadium on opening day of the baseball season. In 1990, the mascot, Slider, was introduced, which reduced the team's focus on Chief Wahoo. However, debate over the issue grew during 1993, as Cleveland Baseball officials began preparing to move the team to a new ballpark at Gateway. The protesters believed that the move afforded the baseball club a convenient opportunity to also adopt a new name and logo. A large contingent of picketers held vigil as Cleveland Stadium hosted its final baseball game, and some satisfaction was felt when the Chief Wahoo effigy was later removed from the stadium's roof.
Ultimately, however, the pleas of the local Native-American community proved unavailing. In 1994, as the Cleveland Indians moved to Jacobs Field, so too did the opening day protest tradition. Pressure continued to increase, until at the beginning of 2018, the Indians announced they would be removing Chief Wahoo from uniforms and caps following the season. The debate about the team's name, however, is still ongoing.
Kent State Univ.
Lynn R. Metzger
Univ. of Akron
See also CLEVELAND AMERICAN INDIAN CENTER.