The Atlanta Braves are done for the year, but the saga of the team’s tomahawk chop rolls on.
Days after the Braves flamed out of the postseason, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution received statements from two separate formerly Georgia-based tribes condemning the team’s ongoing use of the chop.
Imported from Florida State in 1991 when former Nole Deion Sanders joined the team, the chop — a rhythmic chant combined with arm-chopping motions — has drawn love from some quarters, condemnation from others. Longtime Atlanta fans call it an essential element of the Braves experience, and for decades, the team agreed, providing musical and video accompaniment during every game. But critics of the chop say it’s a cheap dishonoring of Native American legacies and history.
“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.”
His comments prompted the Braves to take action prior to the decisive Game 5, played last Wednesday in Atlanta. The Braves didn’t provide fans with foam tomahawks, as they had for Games 1 and 2, and the team appeared to throttle back on its use of the chop in-game — though the fact that St. Louis scored 10 runs in the first inning against Atlanta muted any serious motivational attempt.
That debacle notwithstanding, the Braves pledged to take further action and consult with local stakeholders about the use of the chop.
One such group could be the Cherokees themselves, who once lived in Georgia and now are headquartered in Oklahoma after forcible removal from their land in the 19th century, the event known as the Trail of Tears.
“The Cherokee Nation is proud of tribal citizen and Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told the AJC 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 Creek Nation, which also has roots in Georgia, offered a similar statement, saying the chop is “not an appropriate acknowledgement of tribal tradition or culture.”
Principal Chief James R. Floyd said in a statement that the chop “reduces Native Americans to a caricature and minimizes the contributions of Native peoples as equal citizens and human beings.”
One band of the Cherokee Nation that resisted the eviction settled in North Carolina and, eventually, would go on to own Harrah’s Cherokee Casino — a Braves corporate sponsor. Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed believes that while the team’s name is fine in his eyes, the chop is an artifact whose time has passed.
“That’s just so stereotypical, like old-school Hollywood,” Chief Sneed told the AJC. “Come on, guys. It’s 2020. Let’s move on. Find something else.”
The Braves’ decision to restrict team usage of the chop — though not fans’ own spontaneous chopping — drew criticism from a range of Braves fans and Georgia Republican politicians, who claimed that the team’s loss was “karma” and not the fact that Braves pitchers threw easily-hittable balls. (The Braves did in fact play the tomahawk chop music at least three times during the elimination game, and fans were heard on multiple occasions starting their own chop chants.)
Like other brands that have seen their acceptability change as times have moved on, the Braves have a range of options ahead of them in dealing with the chop, ranging from total acquiescence to a Washington Redskins-style total refusal to change. One possibility that could offer opportunity for all sides to have a voice: an agreement similar to the one that Florida State — the originator of the chop — has reached with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Tribe endorses FSU, and FSU in turn teaches classes on the history of the tribe.
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