How will Braves handle ‘tomahawk chop’ as fans return?

Braves fans participate in the tomahawk chop at a 2018 playoff game at SunTrust Park (now Truist Park). (Photo by Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Combined ShapeCaption
Braves fans participate in the tomahawk chop at a 2018 playoff game at SunTrust Park (now Truist Park). (Photo by Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Eighteen months after the Braves said they would evaluate the future of the “tomahawk chop” at their games, team officials still haven’t announced a position on the issue.

And another home season opens, with fans in the stands, Friday night at Truist Park.

Will the Braves play the musical and video-board prompts for the chop, as they have done for decades? Or will they attempt to tamp down the chop and its accompanying chant by dropping the music and encouragement? The Braves haven’t said.

They also haven’t said whether they intend to announce the outcome of their protracted evaluation before the home opener – or whether they’ll simply put into practice, without advance notice, whatever action or inaction they’ve decided upon.

Braves CEO Derek Schiller was unavailable for an interview on the topic, a team spokeswoman said Tuesday. The Braves declined to provide a statement for this article.

The tomahawk chop has been a part of Braves home games since 1991, spreading to the team’s fans from Florida State when FSU alum Deion Sanders played for the Braves. It has drawn criticism through the decades, including during the Braves’ 2019 National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ryan Helsley, a Cardinals relief pitcher and a member of the Cherokee Nation, called the Braves fans’ arm motion and chant “disrespectful.” He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general. Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual.”

Before the series’ final game Oct. 9, 2019, the Braves decided not to distribute 40,000 red foam tomahawks to fans, as had been planned, and decided not to play the musical prompt and graphics for the chop when Helsley was in the game. He didn’t get into the game, which the Cardinals won 13-1 after scoring 10 runs in the first inning, and the chop broke out several times.

The Braves said in a written statement at that game that they looked forward “to continued dialogue with those in the Native American community after this postseason concludes.” The Braves were able to defer a decision on the future of the tomahawk chop last year because no fans attended games at Truist Park in a season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Significantly, Friday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies will be the first game played at Truist (formerly named SunTrust Park) with fans in attendance since the 2019 NLDS.

During a joint interview with the AJC in July, Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk and Schiller said unequivocally that the Braves would keep their team name, but left open the question of whether the organization would keep the tomahawk chop as part of its in-game fan experience.

“Be assured we are spending a lot of time thinking about it,” McGuirk said then, and Schiller added: “It’s a topic that deserves a lot of debate and a lot of discussion and a lot of thoughtfulness, and that’s exactly what we are doing.”

Schiller also said in the July interview: “No matter what the decision is from our vantage point, this started as a fan initiative, and the fans are likely going to keep doing it anyway.”

When asked about the chop in other interviews over the past 18 months, the Braves generally have said they were continuing to get input from various groups, including the team’s Native American Working Group, the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. In a letter sent to season-ticket holders last year, the Braves wrote that they were “continuing to listen to the Native American community, as well as our fans, players and alumni, to ensure we are making an informed decision on this part of our fan experience.”

In some ways, the Braves have backed away from their tomahawk-chop tradition over the past year-plus. They replaced “Chop On” as a marketing slogan with “For the A.” They removed a large wooden “Chop On” sign from the stadium last year.

The NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs also have made the tomahawk chop a tradition, and the chant greeted the team as it took the field for the Super Bowl in Tampa in February.

An in-depth report by the AJC last year found that within the Native American community, there are strong and varied opinions on the Braves name and associated imagery. Some groups called for the Braves to change their name and end the use of the chop. Some individuals took issue with the chop but not the name. Some weren’t offended by either.

In that report, the National Congress of American Indians objected to the tomahawk chop, saying in a statement: “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.” Cherokee Nation also supports ending the use of Native American mascots and stereotypes such as the chop, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin said in a statement.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in the same AJC report that the Braves organization “wants to make sure everything they’re doing is honoring and is presented in a way that honors Native Americans.” Speaking on a personal level and not in his professional capacity, Sneed said he isn’t offended by the Braves’ name or tomahawk chop cheer, but respects the opinion of those who feel differently.

Staff writer Sarah K. Spencer contributed to this article.