It’s 2021. Only a single win away from the Word Series, the Atlanta Braves seem poised to take one of the most visible stages in American sports for the first time since 1999. If they do, 10 million people will be tuning in to their home games to see their majority white fanbase in their majority white suburb joining together to perform the “Tomahawk Chop.”
As teams ranging from high schools to professional organizations across the country change mascots and traditions that make a mockery of Native American people and culture, the Braves organization has apparently opted out of taking responsibility for their racist name and tradition — instead repeatedly stating that they would “consult with Native American groups” and yet, despite public statements from several powerful groups like the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) blasting “The Chop,” deciding that they didn’t need to change a thing:
“[It] reinforces the racist view that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated, and it has been used to justify policies of forced assimilation and destruction of Indian culture. We would count the ‘tomahawk chop’ to be among those symbols. A ritual that is still widely practiced and consumed on television by sports fans across the country, it is a painful perpetuation of the ‘warrior savage’ myth.”
We’ve published pieces on the Braves’ racism issues before, documenting their stadium’s move from the city they’re named for to a primarily white suburb with no public transportation access, their claims that they would “review” the Tomahawk Chop and consult with unspecified Native American groups, and their hypocritical statements on racial equality. James R. Floyd, the chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation — who were driven out of their ancestral homeland in present-day Georgia during the Indian Removal Act and subsequent Trail of Tears — told CNN in 2019 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.”
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, said in 2019 that he found the Chop to be a “misrepresentation of the Cherokee people and Native Americans in general... It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that.”
These statements are made even more poignant by the erasure and misrepresentation of Native American histories and nations in American history books and classes. Elementary and high school students are taught that Native American people are part of the past — that they taught the pilgrims (read: colonizers) how to grow corn, ate with them at Thanksgiving, and then took part in some wars (read: massacres) with the European travelers (read: colonizers). According to many mainstream history textbooks, the Trail of Tears happened, it was sad, and that was the end. Perhaps there are a few pages thrown in about teepees and pueblos, and other than that, Native Americans are relegated to pre-colonial history as a savage and uncivilized group — and that depiction of savagery is precisely what current-day mascots are actively reinforcing.
If the exclusion of accurate Native American history in classrooms wasn’t bad enough, American Indian imagery can even be used completely out of context – and completely unnecessarily – in classes, as seen in this video of California math teacher Candace Read using a Native caricature to teach trigonometry students the concept of “SohCahToah.”
Perhaps this is why so many Americans, apparently including those running the Braves organization, fail to see the glaring issue of using Native American names and imagery as mascots. This isn’t just a hollow representation of a group lost to history — there are nearly 3 million Native people currently living in America today, and millions more who have Native heritage. To make the argument that this is a tiny piece of the American population only makes the mascot issue clearer — the Native American people alive today are the descendants of the few that were able to survive the countless and continued attempts to commit genocide on the indigenous peoples of North America.
Native Americans to this day die from assault or homicide at twice the rate of the average American. Native American women experience sexual assault at twice the rate of any other demographic in America, and two-thirds of their attackers are non-Native. This doesn’t even begin to dive into the healthcare issues on reservations — Native American people died from coronavirus at nearly twice the rate of white Americans, and the Navajo Nation (the largest existing indigenous nation in the United States) was hit particularly hard by COVID-19.
I can go on, too, about the decades spent kidnapping Native American children from their homes and sending them to white-run boarding schools that were explicitly created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Children were forced to assimilate into white society to become menial workers (of course, they still didn’t have any access to higher education or well-respected careers within white America), given no choice but to shuck their traditions and languages in order to “become civilized.”
So how does it look now, after centuries of literal genocide and organized erasure of Native culture, to co-opt the few stereotypes we have left and use them as mascots, complete with dehumanizing caricatures printed on T-shirts and memorabilia for the teams’ fans?
The Braves organization probably couldn’t stop the fans from doing the Chop. The Cleveland baseball team — formerly the Indians, soon to be the Guardians — won’t ban old merchandise from their stadium. Admittedly, there is only so much the higher-ups can do.
But the higher-ups in Atlanta have chosen to firmly stand by their mascot and the Chop tradition, and they continue to pump out the Chop music and pass out red foam tomahawks, despite public protests from Native American people whose ancestors inhabited the southeastern United States.
When these hollow and offensive shells of Native American culture make up the majority of what current-day Americans know about indigenous history and tradition, we don’t get any closer to coming to terms with our country’s genocidal past — and, in fact, may even continue to inch further and further away from being able to acknowledge our history as Native Americans become more dehumanized in visible popular culture through these caricatures.
While you might be saying, “Why do the mascots even matter? They’re not doing any active harm to Native American people,” I would offer this counter: removing racist names and traditions is, indeed, such a small step — one that doesn’t even begin to create justice — so why are we still unable to even make the performative gestures?