Chiefs of Georgia native tribes call tomahawk chop ‘inappropriate’

Braves team to talk with Native Americans about future of ritual
Despite the Braves’ front office not promoting the tomahawk chop in Game 5, fans did it anyway before St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty, right, delivered a pitch in the fourth inning. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

Despite the Braves’ front office not promoting the tomahawk chop in Game 5, fans did it anyway before St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty, right, delivered a pitch in the fourth inning. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

The Atlanta Braves’ front office says it will hold talks with Native Americans during the offseason in deciding whether to keep or axe the 27-year-old tomahawk chop tradition.

The team hasn’t offered any clarity on which indigenous groups or individuals it intends to approach, but if it’s the two major tribes that once inhabited Georgia, the Braves could be in for some difficult conversations.

In statements to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cherokee and Creek tribal chiefs backed up St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, a Cherokee Nation member who said earlier this month that he found the fans' chanting and arm-motions insulting. Helsley said the chop depicts natives "in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren't intellectual."

“The Cherokee Nation is proud of tribal citizen and Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a written statement, “for speaking out against stereotypes and standing up for the dignity of Native Americans in this country.

“Hopefully Ryan’s actions will better inform the national conversation about inappropriate depictions of Native Americans,” the chief said.

The relief pitcher's comments, made to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before Game 2 of the Braves-Cardinals series at SunTrust Park, prompted the Braves to stop handing out foam tomahawks, playing the chop music or showing the chop graphic when the series returned to Atlanta for Game 5.

St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, a Cherokee Nation member, said earlier this month that the Braves’ tomahawk chop ritual is “a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general.” He is seen here delivering a pitch against the Washington Nationals on Friday in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. SCOTT KANE / GETTY IMAGES

icon to expand image

The controversy has reignited a decades-long debate about sports teams using native peoples as mascots, just as the nation on Monday observes Columbus Day — a holiday many Native American supporters would like to see re-branded as Indigenous Peoples Day.

Asked about steps being taken to address the tomahawk chop long-term, Braves spokeswoman Beth Marshall referred to the team’s earlier statements.

“We will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the overall in-game experience,” said a statement issued on the day of the Braves’ season-ending Game 5 defeat. “We look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community after the postseason concludes.”

Several Republican leaders later blamed the tomahawk chop's hiatus for the team's humiliating 13-1 loss, characterizing it as acquiescence to political correctness.

To the head of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, however, the tomahawk chop is “not an appropriate acknowledgement 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,” Principal Chief James Floyd said in a statement to the AJC.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd, pictured here at a 2017 archeological conference, said in a statement to the AJC that the tomahawk chop "minimizes the contributions of Native  peoples as equal citizens and human beings.” 

icon to expand image

The debate puts the Braves in a uniquely precarious position, given Georgia’s dark history involving the Cherokee and the Creek.

Both nations are based in Oklahoma, since President Andrew Jackson’s administration forced them out in the Trail of Tears in the 19th century. Cherokee removal began with an 1835 treaty signed in North Georgia, at the former Cherokee capital at New Echota. An estimated 4,000 Cherokees died during the march to the west.

About 800 Cherokees resisted the Indian Removal Act, and their descendants became the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The tribe owns Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and is a Braves corporate sponsor.

Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed told the AJC that if the Braves consult with him, he’ll say that he has no problem with the team name — which honors the warrior spirit — but it’s time to hang up the tomahawk chop.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,  told the AJC he does not take offense to the Atlanta Braves’ mascot, but he finds the tomahawk chop stereotypical and archaic.

icon to expand image

“That’s just so stereotypical, like old-school Hollywood,” Chief Sneed said. “Come on, guys. It’s 2020. Let’s move on. Find something else.”

Claudio Saunt, associate director for the University of Georgia’s Institute of Native American Studies, says that both the old Turner Field and SunTrust Park are on lands ceded to the U.S. by Creek Chief William McIntosh in the 1820s, against the will of most tribal leaders. McIntosh’s deals eliminated virtually all Creek territory in Georgia, and he was later executed by his own people. An estimated 3,500 Creeks died on the journey to Oklahoma.

“That has to bear on the discussion,” Saunt said, “both of the tomahawk chop and of the actual name of the team.”

Saunt said if the Braves want a genuine dialogue with native groups, they’ll have to start with the Cherokee and the Creek tribes. It could give the team some hope of forging a relationship similar to the one between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Florida State University — where the tomahawk chop is rooted, the professor said.

In 2005, after the National Collegiate Athletic Association banned universities from using offensive mascots, the Seminole tribe endorsed FSU’s use of tribal symbols. Now the university teaches classes on Seminole history and FSU sends teachers to reservation schools.

Tribal members have also played for the Seminoles football team and taken part in the pre-game tradition where a costumed “Chief Osceola” rides a horse onto the field bareback and plants a burning spear into the ground.

Meanwhile, FSU fans do their chopping and chanting in nearly identical fashion to how it's been done in Atlanta ever since FSU football star Deion Sanders became a Braves outfielder in 1991.

The Seminole tribe won’t comment on the Braves’ version of the tomahawk chop, spokesman Gary Bitner told the AJC. But he said the tribe has no issue with FSU’s ritual.

“I don’t think they take any offense to anything that’s done at Florida State, by virtue of the positive relationship and the full scope of that relationship,” Bitner said. “They really believe that you have to look at it as a total relationship, and it’s not their business to get into what other entities do without fully understanding all of that.”

Rebecca Nagle, who lives in the Cherokee Nation capital city of Tahlequah, Okla., and hosts the podcast This Land, said all Native American sports mascots date back to the years after the total defeat of indigenous tribes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nagle said she believes the Braves should not only ditch the tomahawk chop, but also the team name.

“If that upsets some people, then those people can be upset about it,” she said. “People got upset about integrating schools. People got upset about extending the right to vote to women and people of color. That doesn’t mean that those weren’t policies that our government shouldn’t have done.”