On the Tomahawk Chop and the confusion of symbolism with action

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The Braves’ use of the Tomahawk Chop during games came under additional scrutiny this week, thanks to a Cardinals’ rookie pitcher. Ryan Helsley, said Cardinals’ rookie and member of the Cherokee Nation, spoke up after Game 1 of the Braves-Cardinals National League Division Series:

“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said. “Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual. They are a lot more than that. It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s not. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that.”

The Braves, to their credit, listened to Helsley’s remarks, and did not distribute the customary foam tomahawks to each seat in the stadium prior to Game 5. They didn’t listen that much, though, and therefore don’t deserve that much credit, as the real promise here was just to not perform the chop — or the music that goes along with it that prompts everyone in attendance to start chopping — whenever Helsley was in the game:

“Out of respect for the concerns expressed by Mr. Helsley, we will take several efforts to reduce the Tomahawk Chop during our in-ballpark presentation today. Among other things, these steps include not distributing foam tomahawks to each seat and not playing the accompanying music or using Chop-related graphics when Mr. Helsley is in the game. As stated earlier, we will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the overall in-game experience. We look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community after the postseason concludes.”

Yes, the Braves’ answer to Helsley’s comments was “okay, sure, maybe the chop is racist, so we’ll only be racist when the guy it’s racist to isn’t around.” And yes, admitting something is racist and then doing it two percent less often is even worse than feigning ignorance on the matter.

Sure, Atlanta said they’ll continue this conversation after the postseason concludes — and since they were drubbed right out of October by the Cards in Game 5, they can start having those conversations right now — but where they’ll go is anyone’s guess. There will absolutely be pushback from some Braves fans, in the same way Cleveland dropping their horribly racist caricature of a Native American, Chief Wahoo, from their branding drew the ire of fans who loved being casually racist with their hats. That shouldn’t stop the Braves from doing a whole lot more than “remember to only be racist when no one is looking,” but, we’ll see if that’s what happens.

I can’t say I have particularly high hopes for a solution we can be happy about, given the initial workaround and statement. There’s also, you know, the way brands and government officials tend to treat indigenous people and their rights and feelings even to this day that has me feeling pessimistic. Take, for example, the kicker to a story about Helsley and the chop on CNN.com:

Earlier this year, Maine’s governor signed a bill making the state the first to prohibit public schools, colleges and universities from using Native American symbols as mascots. Last year, the Cleveland Indians announced they are no longer featuring their Chief Wahoo logo, which has been widely characterized as offensive and racist.

There is nothing false contained within that paragraph. However, it stood out to me for what it doesn’t say, and the way it characterizes its subjects. Maine’s governor, Democrat Janet Mills, was the Attorney General of the state before becoming its governor. While in that role, she battled Maine’s indigenous Penobscot Nation over water and territorial rights, refusing to recognize their traditional and treaty-affirmed rights of sovereignty of the Penobscot people over the Penobscot River. Then, as governor, Mills appointed Jerry Reid as the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection: Reid, like Mills, actively battled against the Penobscot Nation and its sovereign rights prior to her becoming governor. This was a land grab, followed by the appointment of someone who would continue to fight for Maine’s rights to take from its indigenous people.

This is just one of the ways in which Mills’ treatment of Maine’s indigenous people isn’t even up to the federal government’s standards: yes, she’s made Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and she signed on to banning Native American symbols being used in schools as mascots, but these symbolic gestures are the extent of her pro-indigenous work. And symbolism is, sadly, what people tend to remember and then end up citing as positive or enough later on.

Then, there’s the case of Cleveland and Chief Wahoo. Let’s jump back to something I wrote in January 2018, when details of the Wahoo logo change first emerged:

In fact, Cleveland is still set to profit off Wahoo not just in 2018 while the team is still wearing and utilizing the logo, but also even when the logo has been removed. That’s because Cleveland can still sell merchandise featuring Wahoo — it just won’t be available on the larger MLB.com shop.

The excuse is that, due to trademark laws, Cleveland needs to continue to manufacture and sell merchandise with Wahoo on it to avoid having others with the means to produce their own merch from doing the same. An excuse is all that is, however: Cleveland just wants to make sure that if someone is going to profit off racism, it’s going to be the organization.

This isn’t just an opinion, either: ESPN’s Sarah Spain reported that, according to a trademark lawyer, because Wahoo is such a known and popular entity that “they only have to show ongoing use every few years, not even specifically putting things on sale.” Cleveland could just make some items with Wahoo on them and never sell them, and it would still maintain the trademark and keep randos from profiting off the old logo.

Yes, Cleveland no longer uses the Wahoo logo on their jerseys or hats or in the stadium, and their MLB.com shop isn’t selling any Wahoo gear that I could find. As you can see, though, in order to protect their trademark, they will still produce Wahoo gear that can be sold locally, meaning, they’ll still profit off of racism. What is remembered, though, is that Wahoo is no longer in use. That is kind of accurate, in the same way Mills is kind of an advocate for indigenous people in Maine — that’s a liberal use of “kind of,” and I mean that in more ways than one. And yet, there they are, both labeled as productive, progressive allies in a major media outlet’s story on the Braves’ ongoing racial issues, serving as counterpoints to Atlanta’s behavior.

So, no, I’m not highly optimistic we’ll be satisfied with whatever change is coming to Braves’ ballgames in 2020 and beyond. Maybe, though, this will finally be the time that things are done right. After all, the only thing that’s needed here is for the chop to vanish completely: no more tomahawks, no more music, and no allowing fans to get away with doing the chop on their own without the cues and props previously provided by the Braves. Is that too much to ask?

[reads back over the article] Don’t answer that

  • The ball being used in the postseason sure isn’t acting like the juiced ball of the regular season. I’ve reached out to the MLBPA to see if the commissioner’s office alerted them to any change to the ball for October, but for now, it’s enough to know that Rob Manfred and Co. seem to be able to do exactly what they claim they can’t do, which is to purposefully change the ball to suit whatever their particular goal is, be it additional run scoring or aiming for shorter, more watchable October games.

  • I love that Dallas Keuchel will express his concerns and opinions on just about anything. Here he is talking about the scourge of draft-pick compensation.

  • John Thorn going into detail on the why and what of the Black Sox scandal is required reading. I will say, though, that even if the White Sox players involved in the game fixing weren’t explicitly part of a labor action, the context of 1919 was still such that the reason for said fixing was because they existed in such an anti-labor environment.

  • It took a lot for today’s newsletter to not just be “lmao” and links to this article on the Phillies’ excuse for not adding more in-season as well as the Nationals’ defeat of the Dodgers in the NLDS.

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