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Hey, do you remember the 2019 National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals? While playing at home in Game 1, the Braves, as they always do, utilized the Tomahawk Chop to engage the crowd, which led to rookie reliever Ryan Helsley of the Cherokee Nation to speak up on the matter:
“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’ response was to essentially admit that the Chop was indeed racist…
“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.”
…but being racist didn’t mean they needed to stop doing it, generally speaking. Whatever came of that “continued dialogue with those in the Native American community,” you ask? Well, the Braves are still doing the chop because they have paying customers who like having a chance to perform a little bit of socially acceptable racism in public. And they’re still called the Braves even though we now live in a world where the Washington Football Team has its second new name and the Cleveland Guardians exist, because there hasn’t been mass pressure on them to change things up the way there was with those two clubs, which were armed with, respectively, a racial slur and a racist caricature for a logo for decades.
And the moratorium on Helsey’s appearances appears to be over, too, as Derrick Goold of the St. Louis-Post Dispatch noted on Thursday evening that the Braves were “showing the tomahawk graphic and playing a drumbeat here at Truist Park as Ryan Helsley enters game.” So, we’ve gone back in time to pre-October of 2019, where the Braves no longer even have to pretend that they agree that the Chop is racist enough to avoid doing when someone it is racist against enters the game. Was it just a mistake that saw the Chop graphic appear and the music play as Helsley entered the game? Did whoever was in charge of deciding whether to press the big Chop button at Truist decide that they might be able to rattle the Cardinals’ reliever, who entered in the bottom of the eighth in a game tied 1-1 between two clubs very much angling for a postseason spot? Or were the Braves just hoping no one would notice?
Regardless of the how, none of these are acceptable possibilities. It shouldn’t be played at all, of course, but that the Braves can’t even bother to keep up with not playing it for a literal Native American who has spoken out against its use is completely absurd. Then again, it basically mirrors their “dialogue” with any other Native American group, doesn’t it? “We hear you, we see you, but honestly, we don’t give a shit” is their response to all of this, even if they don’t actually say the last part out loud. The Braves’ actions say it for them.
Stop the Chop. Change the team’s name to something like the Atlanta Hammers, to honor Henry Aaron. Sure, fans will complain — you’ve still got Clevelanders who are aggravated about the switch to Guardians — but honestly, fuck ‘em. There are plenty of potential paying customers who will be happy to attend games if they aren’t going to be surrounded by people participating in a racist ritual. There are plenty of people who will buy team merch if it isn’t emblazoned with logos and a name that continues to perpetuate a racist environment, and dismantling that environment is really what should be the focus here. As Nick Martin wrote back in January of 2020, prior to the Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers:
The mascot issue is not about whether Native people have been properly polled. It is not a question of American ignorance. It’s that the people with the most power in this situation—the owners, the franchises—know exactly what they’re doing and don’t care. And in the face of much more pressing material concerns, it’s true that a fair number of Native people might not care much, either, which is a sentiment I’ve heard from members of my own family and tribe.
But Native mascots are a monument to racism, just as the Confederate statues that dot public grounds across the country are monuments to racism. And like the statues, despite their often incoherent and cheap origins, these mascots and team names have begun to represent something different for the American people, something grander. They stand in for a version of America that never existed, one that actually respected its neighboring tribal nations. (It makes sense, then, that Native mascots and team names took off at the turn of the twentieth century, just as America was sprinting into its next phase in colonization: The erasure and assimilation of traditional Native governance and culture.)
For many Americans, having these mascots in place is important to their identity and their culture. The Native mascot functions as a seal of approval for the Americans who support it, an ode to their belief that this land is fairly theirs. It is the manifestation of a century of lies told to schoolchildren, about how this country was not built on stolen land and Native blood but slowly ceded through fair trades with The Indians. Any attempts to deviate from this belief system will be met with resistance. So much rests on it.
Everything is “culture war,” yes, but the culture war is real. These fans believe the Chop and the name are fine, because they need them to be considered fine. They’re not, though, and it’s time to get rid of both of them. That the Braves are now encouraging the Chop during Helsley’s appearances again, however, is evidence that we’re nowhere near dismantling this particular environment.
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