OPINION: Lose the tomahawk chop? Even Braves not brave enough for that

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The tomahawk chop lives on. But you kind of knew it wasn’t going anywhere.

For 18 months, since the Braves ignominiously got blown out in the deciding playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals, there’s been an open question: What’s going to happen to the tomahawk chop?

The Braves ditched handing out foam tomahawks at that October 2019 game after Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said he found it disrespectful. The Braves promptly gave up 10 runs in the first inning and the angry fanbase had a target — political correctness. It was like the ghost of Chief Noc-A_Homa, who was earlier run off for cultural sensitivity reasons, came back to haunt them.

This year, at their home opener Friday night, the Braves rolled out the new and improved — and more culturally sensitive — chop. Gone was the organ-driven musical prompt that had become incessant. The team now says it’s a more “organic” tomahawk chop, one driven by the fans. The team still nudges it along with a drumming sound and chopping tomahawks on video screens around the park. That’s to aid the rhythm, I suppose.

It’s been a tortuous time for the Liberty Media Real Estate Play (aka The Braves). The team’s debt has gone up, from $559 million in 2019 to $718 million last year, while its revenue plummeted by nearly two-thirds ($300 million) last year because of COVID-19. So the team wasn’t going to go out of its way to anger its fans, who love the chop. Especially when they’re trying to get back onto solid financial footing.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball yanked the All-Star Game out of Atlanta two weeks ago in reaction to recent Georgia election law changes. Now, was baseball suddenly getting culturally woke and buying into the notion that Republicans crafted the law to hang on to power? Hardly. League officials just didn’t want to deal with the rolling political mess that is Georgia. They didn’t want the event to become a political football because baseball is a game and a business, and political footballs bounce all over the place.

Moreover, and this is just me deducing here, the Braves weren’t going to dump the popular chop on the heels of the All-Star Game exodus and look like they were bending to the will of the cancel culture mob. The majority of fans weren’t going to have that.

An AJC poll last year found that fans support the tomahawk chop 3-1. They also support keeping the Braves’ name 9-1. I agree with the nine on the name. As for the chop, I used to find it amusing but grew to find it tiring and trite.

But who am I to say that stuff is offensive? It’s not my battle.

I called several American Indian groups and individuals and found there’s as much consensus on the subject as there is in a Georgia senatorial race.

Interestingly, two Cherokee chiefs had diametric opinions.

From Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, America’s largest tribe, released a statement from Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. that said ending the chop isn’t enough: “Cherokee Nation supports the removal of all stereotypical uses of American Indian names and images as representations of all major sports teams in the United States.

“All across the United States, fans embrace stereotypes of American Indians — war bonnets, face paint, crying war chants and making tomahawk-chopping gestures — and mock our culture as though we are vestiges of the past. … Native mascots were adopted in an age of the country’s past when this type of racism was acceptable and cartoonish depictions were allowed, however, today we are in a new enlightened era, and we applaud those sports teams that are taking the appropriate steps to change this imagery and their names.”

Conversely, you have Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. A recent Facebook post says, “Good luck to our Cherokee Braves tonight as they play NW Guilford.” That’s the local high school team.

“We don’t need groups to be offended on our behalf,” Chief Sneed said in an interview. Previously, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the tomahawk chop was “just so stereotypical, like old-school Hollywood. Come on guys, it’s 2020. Let’s move on. Find something else.” This week, he said he was merely referring to the music that accompanied the chop.

Sneed was part of a group of American Indians who have worked with the Braves in the past year on cultural and social sensitivities surrounding the chop. His tribe was already a corporate sponsor of the Braves (they run casinos and want Atlantans to trek to North Carolina and lose some money).

“What was a business relationship has become a cultural relationship to use the platform that the Braves have to tell the stories of Native Americans, not cancel culture to shut people down,” Sneed told me. “It was the most important thing to do, rather than listening to the voices shouting in the ether.”

“Sports are simulated warfare and are tribal. Fans are tribal,” said Sneed, who was a U.S. Marine and has a military tradition in his family.

In a video on the Braves’ website, Sneed plays off the team’s name, saying, “That warrior spirit is in us. It’s in our DNA. It’s the reason that we’re still here today.”

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Credit: Atlanta Braves

The Braves and the Native American listening group came up with a campaign saying, “We’re still here.” The Braves put out T-shirts with Cherokee syllabary and the money raised has gone to provide a language teacher in the Cherokee school. Sneed attended the Braves’ opening day last year and posed with Hank Aaron and Andrew Young and some Braves bigwigs to unveil some Braves jerseys with Cherokee lettering.

Donald Kirkland is part Navajo and serves on the Georgia Council of American Indian Concerns, an organization that has met with the Braves to provide counsel. He said a Braves exec said they were embarrassed such a meeting hadn’t happened sooner. Georgia has no federally recognized tribes but Georgia recognizes three. There also has been an increase in embracing one’s Native American heritage. In the 1960 census, just 749 Georgians called themselves Native American. By 1980, it was nearly 10,000 and now is more than 50,000.

Kirkland said he has polled Native Americans both here and in the Southwest on the tomahawk chop controversy and hasn’t had much pushback. The chop “does not depict an authentic Native American custom,” he said. “So I’m not conflicted by something that doesn’t necessarily represent me.”

He said it’s merely a fun, positive rallying cry for people enjoying themselves at a game. It’s something to do between beers.

Or maybe not. Jason Salsman, spokesperson for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, coached Cardinals pitcher Helsley when he was a youth and is proud that he objected to the chop in the October 2019 playoff.

“People were like, ‘Who is this person? Is he a snowflake?’“

Salsman personally dislikes the tomahawk chop and said it’s really not for non-Indians to debate. “It’s not your place to say what is offensive and what is not.”