For years, many sports teams have been the subject of controversy for using Native American imagery. Though they’re far from the only offenders, the Atlanta Braves are frequently at the center of this criticism. Some people think that every reference to Native American culture (the Tomahawk Chop, the logos, the team name) needs to go. Others get livid at the mere suggestion. Maybe the Braves should change their name just because of that brutal defeat in Game 5 of the NLDS. (Thirteen to one, guys? THIRTEEN TO ONE???) All joking aside, this is an issue that the ball club and fans should consider carefully. Should the Braves change their name to something that doesn’t rely on cultural appropriation?
Just in case you aren’t familiar with “cultural appropriation”, let’s start with breaking that down. Cultural appropriation refers to one culture of higher privilege using the imagery of another, less-privileged culture in ways that either mock that second culture or, strangely, use it to elevate the first culture. Think of white people dressed in costume as Native Americans. I know what you’re thinking – shouldn’t one culture be allowed to honor another? Well, sure, that’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s generally not what happens. I’m not talking about when a white person is invited to participate in certain cultural traditions by the members of that culture. I’m talking about drunk frat boys wearing feather headdresses.
“I see why that’s in poor taste, but why is it offensive?” Let’s go way back and look the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the first white settlers. I’ll save you a very long history lesson – though I encourage you to learn about it yourself – and just say that the first white people in North America all but slaughtered the Indigenous people living here. Now, imagine that in reverse. Imagine being colonized by another culture. Your direct ancestors manage to survive, and all your life you learn of the atrocities committed against your people by that culture. A couple hundred years later, that same dominant culture starts using Jesus Christ as a mascot for their sports team. Ew.
“That’s not the same! Jesus is a religious figure.” Well, the tomahawk is also considered a sacred object to Native Americans. So, it’s not entirely out of left field (pardon the pun). If you followed that link, you might come back to me and say “Revolutionary War soldiers also carried tomahawks!” Yes, but the Braves continue to use OTHER Native American symbolism in connection with the team. I’m pretty sure they’re not honoring Revolutionary War soldiers every time the “War Chant” gets going.
The most recent controversy
This issue hit the media recently because a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Ryan Helsley, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, expressed his distaste for the use of foam tomahawks, the chopping motion, and the chant encouraged by both the stadium and spectators. In response, the Braves said they wouldn’t hand out tomahawks ahead of Game 5, the way they generally do during the playoffs. They also said they wouldn’t use the chant or encourage people to chop when Helsley was playing. It was a bit of a moot point since Helsley didn’t end up pitching that game.
I was at the game and I will fully own the fact that I wear Braves gear, and I took my own foam tomahawk to the game. I actually didn’t read about Helsley’s concerns until I was already at the stadium. As for the War Chant and the Tomahawk Chop, I admit that I’ve done them many, many times at games. Even as someone who thoroughly enjoys doing everything I just mentioned, I am reconsidering. Even if no one of Native American heritage ever had a problem with the cultural appropriation, it’s still pretty messed up that we do it.
Stolen bases and traditions
I saw fans online “blaming” the fact that the Braves had “banned the chop” (they hadn’t) as the reason we lost so badly. As someone who has followed the team for several years now, I’ll say that is laughably untrue. Sadly, the Braves seem to hold a tradition of losing big in the playoffs, when they make it there, including the years that The Chop is in heavy usage. I also found it ironic that sports fans online were complaining that the use of The Chop would be reduced “because someone got their feelings hurt”. Those exact same sports fans had THEIR feelings hurt at the thought that they might have to make a change.
People upset about not using The Chop is kind of silly anyway. It was “stolen” from the Florida Seminoles back in the early 90s. That’s another point – The Chop has only been in use for about 30 years, not even close to as long as the Braves have existed. The franchise itself started in 1876, and they’ve used the Braves name consistently since 1941, when they were in Boston. (They were also the Boston Braves from 1912 to 1935.) That brings up another point – this team has played in multiple cities under multiple names. Changing it would certainly be an adjustment for the fans, but it would be just that. An adjustment. When the most recent mascot, Blooper, was introduced, people LOST THEIR MINDS. “Why would you name a mascot after a negative baseball term????????” But now, people have adjusted and Blooper is part of the game.
At the end of the day, anyone who is that upset about the potential changes to the Braves team or symbols probably doesn’t have much to worry about. The Braves have sunk SO much money and branding into the tomahawks and everything that surrounds them that I doubt they’d give them up any time soon. If I had to bet, they will make small, incremental changes over time. Back in the 80s, they stopped using the overtly-racist mascot, Chief Noc-a-homa (though I see many fans at games wearing shirts with his face). Maybe this year they won’t hand out tomahawks. In a few years time, they’ll find some other chant to try and fire everyone up. I doubt that change will happen overnight.
As for me, I have some soul-searching to do. I am dedicated to Atlanta baseball (even after the epic beat down from St. Louis), but I understand why this upsets Native Americans. The Braves aren’t the only team in pro sports who use Native culture – there’s the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs… Don’t even get me started on the Washington Redskins. Yeesh. However, the Braves have a chance to do the right thing. I mean, they might as well – their fans are pretty mad at them at the moment. Only time will tell if the Braves decide to change their name for good.