Sports

In Defense of the Atlanta Braves ‘Tomahawk Chop’ Chant

Atlanta Braves fans with foam tomahawks at Turner Field in Atlanta, Ga., in 2013. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)
There’s no good reason to end a time-honored fan tradition that is, by any conceivable standard, benign.

It took a prolonged rebuild and a few managerial changes, but the Atlanta Braves are back atop the National League East, a division they had dominated for almost two decades. There is no Glavine, Smoltz, or Maddux on Atlanta’s 2019 roster, but they might not need one — fueled by a potent lineup featuring veterans such as Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson and talented upstarts such as Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves baseball is back. It’s fun to watch.

The environment at Atlanta’s SunTrust Park mirrors the youthful verve of the team. Catch a Braves game in Atlanta and you’ll see it — the fans are raucous, serenading the players with a chant that accompanies every high-leverage situation, “chopping” a sea of foam tomahawks in concert as they go. And the players feed off of their energy.

The postseason provides the requisite pretext for an otherwise athletically illiterate pundit class to dip its toes into the world of professional baseball. So, naturally, the “tomahawk chop” chant has of late drawn the ire of those wont to have their ire drawn. Amid a growing swell of Twitter outrage, a reporter with the St. Louis Dispatch asked St. Louis Cardinals rookie pitcher and Cherokee Nation member Ryan Helsley what he thought of the chant. Helsley, who had just pitched against the Braves in the National League Division Series, said that he found the chant to be “a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” one that “depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual.” He lamented that Natives are “used as mascots” by the Braves and other teams.

While some in the press have since disseminated Helsley’s view as if it were representative of all Native peoples, among Native Americans themselves there has long been a diversity of opinion on the merits of Native iconography and mascots. Indeed, the lack of consensus among tribes and Native people on the issue continues to stymie the efforts of activists who want to eliminate all Native-themed mascots from the sports world. To take but one example of the frequently surprising results pollsters get when they ask self-identified Natives about the issue, a Wolvereye poll from earlier this year found that the adjective such respondents most commonly associated with the Washington Redskins’ team name —a brand far more fraught and controversial than that of the Braves — was “proud.”

What is an activist to do with that result? One response — a tack that will no doubt be used again —  has been to dismiss the Wolvereye findings out of hand because respondents weren’t required to demonstrate tribal citizenship to pollsters. It’s nevertheless worth noting that Wolvereye’s findings are congruent with those of a rigorous 2016 Washington Post poll of Native peoples on the Redskins controversy, which found that nine in ten Natives surveyed were not offended by the team name.

Are we to believe that the same Native Americans would be more outraged by a foam tomahawk?

The origins of Atlanta’s tomahawk-chop chant are innocuous enough — two-sport star and former Florida State Seminole Deion Sanders brought it to Atlanta when he played outfield for the Braves in the early 1990s. The foam tomahawks and associated cheer quickly took hold among Braves fans, eager to baptize the chant as a local tradition. The Braves were not and are not the only team in sports to makes use of the chant; fans of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs fans regularly “chop,” as do the Florida State Seminoles, who have been granted the express permission of the Seminole Tribe to partake in the chant and other such rituals.

But perhaps it’s the mere fact of Native imagery that ought to stir our consciences against the tomahawk chop. To borrow the retort du jour, why should any people at all be a mascot? Context worth considering: The Boston Celtics employ a caricature of an Irishman as their logo. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish use a leprechaun as their mascot. It would seem strange to suggest that the Irish people have not suffered sufficient historical hardship to activate the strict moralizing scrutiny of the press corps. Mother Jones could, I’m sure, find an Irishman who feels that the “Fighting Irish” team name reinforces old stereotypes about the Irish people and their supposed proclivity to drunken violence. Will the Fighting Irish and the Celtics have to rid themselves of their branding next? The Minnesota Vikings are named after the Scandinavian warriors of old, who raped and pillaged foreign lands. Should they find a new name, too?

I do not mean to rank the historical suffering of the above groups — the relative paucity of discrimination historically felt by Scandinavian-Americans is not lost on me — but only to observe the nuance of history. Most Native peoples underwent horrible ordeals of exclusion, displacement, and genocide in the first few hundred years of the American experiment. Their experience, of course, was not homogeneous; some Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, for instance, owned slaves years after the conclusion of the Civil War. And while the Irish were not subject to the same genocidal horror as their Native peers, they faced challenges all their own. The historian Arthur D. Schlesinger Sr. once called anti-Catholicism “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” Irish Catholics were subject to vicious discrimination upon arriving on American shores. Did they have it worse than American Indians? Taken as a group, probably not. But they still suffered, and there are doubtless Irish Americans living today who could levy the same complaints about the Celtics and Notre Dame that Ryan Helsley did about the Braves.

The key point to remember is that most fans — even, as the case of the Redskins shows, those who are “supposed” to be offended — don’t associate the Braves or the Celtics or the Vikings or the Fighting Irish with the historical injustices those teams’ names could be said to invoke. They honor the fighting spirit of warriors of all stripes — Native American, Irish, and Scandinavian alike. That there will always be a few who take offense is not a compelling reason for the Braves or any of those other teams to rebrand. So, please, Atlanta, don’t eliminate the tomahawk, abandon the hashtag, or stifle a time-honored chant that is, by any conceivable standard, benign. Instead, chop on.

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