Opinion

The Atlanta Braves' delayed racial reckoning is here

The pandemic suspended the 'Tomahawk Chop' debate. The World Series brought it back.

For the Atlanta Braves, the pandemic couldn't have come at a better time.

October 2019 found the team in an awkward position. After long defending Braves fans' "Tomahawk Chop" gesture and the accompanying "war chant" as having "[no] more to do with Indian culture than the Wave," the franchise was forcefully called out by St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, during the National League Division Series. "I think it's a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general," Helsley said of the chop. "Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people ... who aren't intellectual." 

The Braves scrambled to "reduce the Tomahawk Chop" during games, an initiative that apparently amounted to refraining from actively encouraging it for the parts of one game when Helsley was on the mound. But after falling short in the playoffs, the Braves were blessed with a convenient way to avoid further addressing the offensive sports ritual: When baseball returned in 2020, fans weren't in attendance due to pandemic protocols. And as national public opinion turned against racist imagery in pro sports last year — most notably the Washington football franchise dropped, as its team name, a racial slur — the Braves vaguely assured that they were "working through" the future of the Tomahawk Chop.

But while it's easy to get frustrated with the Braves' blatant foot-dragging, stopping the Tomahawk Chop isn't as simple as no longer actively encouraging it. As a fan-initiated cheer, it will require overhauling the entire brand and culture of the Atlanta Braves to bring the franchise into the 21st century.

Indeed, the Braves' pandemic-induced respite from self-examination didn't last long. All it took was fans returning to stadiums for the franchise to drop its charade of "listen[ing] to the Native American community." When the Braves played the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the National League Championship Series in the 2020 postseason, a tie-breaking home run by Austin Riley was met with "some Tomahawk-Chop chants from the first fans allowed to attend a major league game this season."

By the start of the 2021 season — some 18 months after the franchise claimed it was re-evaluating the Tomahawk Chop — fans finally returned in droves to Atlanta's ​​Truist Park, where "the Braves encouraged [them] to chant and chop during their home opener against the Phillies," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. "The team used the digital Tomahawk Chop images during the game, along with the drumbeat, encouraging fans to do the chop during several pivotal moments during the Braves' fifth and sixth innings." (Meanwhile, in the American League, the Cleveland Indians did some overdue soul-searching and decided to change their name to the Guardians). 

To anyone who's been watching the 2021 playoffs, the return of the Tomahawk Chop isn't news. TBS frequently cut during its broadcasts to show the crowd making the solemn chopping motion, a gesture that is so well understood by fans to be a racist mockery that it has been weaponized against Native Americans outside of stadiums and protested by Indigenous activists since its inception. 

With criticism mounting as the World Series prepares to go to Georgia, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement ahead of the first series game in Atlanta on Tuesday. "The Native American community in [the Atlanta] region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including 'The Chop,'" Manfred said, as reported by The Athletic. "For me, that's kind of the end of the story. In that market, we're taking into account the Native American community." He downplayed the mounting backlash, too, claiming the league doesn't "market our game on a nationwide basis. Ours is an everyday game."

Manfred's defense only underscores the contortions baseball is going through to avoid addressing this issue. For one thing, it's absurd to claim MLB doesn't "market our game on a nationwide basis" — the Braves are playing in the World Series, which is about as visible as the sport ever gets. 

As for the Native American community in the region being "wholly supportive," that's a tricker claim. Like any demographic group, Native Americans are not monolithic in their beliefs and hold varied opinions in the debate. Still, the larger consensus seems to be that the Tomahawk Chop specifically is offensive. The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Native rights organization, says the chop "reinforces the racist view that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated ... it is a painful perpetuation of the 'warrior savage' myth." James R. Floyd, the principal chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a tribe whose ancestral home is in Georgia, likewise told CNN that "although the Tomahawk Chop may be a game-day tradition, it is not an appropriate acknowledgment of tribal tradition or culture. It reduces Native Americans to a caricature and minimizes the contributions of Native peoples as equal citizens and human beings."

Even the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, whom Manfred and the Braves cite for cover and who have said the team name is inoffensive, don't seem thrilled with accompanying rituals, including the chop. Bo Taylor, a member of the Eastern Band, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the chop's accompanying war chant, "the nah, nah, nah-nah nah nah, that's ridiculous. That has no meaning to us." The principal chief of the tribe in North Carolina, Richard Sneed, has likewise called the chop music "so stereotypical, like old-school Hollywood" even while pushing back on "groups ... offended on our behalf."

It shouldn't have to be said that the Braves organization should not encourage fans to do the Tomahawk Chop. The stadium should not dim the lights, play drums, and display jumbotron graphics inviting the gesture. It should dispense with the instructional shirts, the Chop House ballpark restaurant, and the officially sanctioned "Tomahawk Team" spirit group. The team should acknowledge its historic role in minimizing Native Americans as "equal citizens and human beings," as Floyd said, and find ways to meaningfully give back to the community that suffers the highest poverty rates in the country due to the continued genocide perpetrated against Indigenous people. Likewise, broadcasters like TBS and Fox should refrain from televising the Tomahawk Chop when it does happen, given the ample research linking such cultural caricatures to harm to Native American youth.

Those changes would be a good start. But part of why the Tomahawk Chop has been particularly difficult to uproot — the reason it's outlasted the Washington NFL team's old name and the Cleveland Indians, why it's stuck around when Chief Wahoo and Noc-A-Homa and game day headdresses have not — is because of the fans.

As a fan-initiated celebration like the Wave, getting rid of the chop isn't as simple as kicking out anyone who defies an organizational ban. With or without the drum music and other stadium cues, fans can still hum the chop war chant like they might "Seven Nation Army." Even if the Braves as an organization nixed the chop, the team couldn't force its fanbase to drop all these rituals linked for so long to the franchise's brand identity.

That's why, though team names like the "Braves" may not be universally offensive to Native Americans, there's ultimately only one solution here, one many Native American advocates have sought from the start: Sports teams should stop using Native Americans for branding.

Were the Braves to revert back to being the Bees, for example, the racist chant would become nonsensical. Or were the team to become the Atlanta Hammers, as some fans have suggested, the gesture might be transformed, losing its racist winking (and accompanying war chant) and becoming associated instead with knocking the ball out of the park.

Short of any such scorched-earth solution, though, the Tomahawk Chop is here to stay. And when the World Series arrives in Atlanta on Friday, the 9.8 or so million people still watching baseball will be reminded how tragically far this sport and its fans still have to go.

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