There has been a bit of a reckoning in the sports world as of late.
The Washington Redskins have changed their name to the Washington Football Team as they examine new name options. The Cleveland Indians will be known as the Cleveland Guardians starting next year. High school teams across the country are renaming their athletic programs from other Native American terms as well.
One that has stayed in place has been the Atlanta Braves. Not only the name, but the tradition of the “tomahawk chop.” The “chop” has been a part of the team’s home games for about three decades, with fans echoing a chant as they rock their arms back and forth in a chopping motion.
As the Braves take center stage in the World Series, the tomahawk chop is facing scrutiny on the national stage. Perception of the chant is divided between those who view it as camaraderie among Braves fans in the stadium and others who say it is a racist — and inaccurate — depiction of Native American culture.
With the World Series now in Atlanta, Sporting News is taking a look back at the history of the controversial chant and the efforts that have been made to potentially be rid of it.
MORE: Sports teams that retired Native American mascots, nicknames
How did the tomahawk chop start?
There have been conflicting narratives on when the tomahawk chop began in Atlanta. Some say the arrival of former Florida State Seminole Deion Sanders to the Braves spurred it on. Others say it had been going on before that.
In truth, it is a bit of both. According to a 1991 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, organist Carolyn King said she had been playing the tune that accompanies the chop for two seasons prior because she felt “it sounded as if it would go with a team called the Braves.” She noted that it began to pick up popularity at the end of May 1991 and that it went from only a few people getting into the chop to a large portion of the crowd.
This is where Sanders and Florida State come in. In a 1991 South Florida Sun Sentinel article, Miles McRea, then the Braves’ director of promotion and entertainment, said the “tomahawk-chop terminology is definitely Braves,” but noted the chant itself began at Florida State.
During spring training in 1991, a few Florida State fans began to swing their arms in a chopping motion, according to a 1991 New York Times article. That prompted more fans to pick up on it, and during the season toy tomahawks were brought to games.
During the Braves’ postseason run that year, the Times reported that foam-rubber tomahawks were made and sold around the area for fans to take and swing inside the stadium.
MORE: Why Cleveland Indians changed name to Guardians
Controversy and protests
In that October 1991 New York Times article, Braves director of public relations Jim Schultz was quoted as saying that the team had received complaints that the tomahawk was “demeaning to Native Americans,” but defended it by saying the team viewed it as “a proud expression of unification and family.”
That was not a viewpoint shared by everyone. When the Braves reached the World Series to face the Twins, Native Americans protested in Minneapolis before the start of Game 1.
According to an article in The New York Times, American Indian Movement representatives had hoped to meet with officials with the Braves and MLB to discuss renaming the team and cooling the fans’ chant. MLB commissioner Fay Vincent said it would be “inappropriate to deal with it now.”
“I will pay attention to the issues,” Vincent said, according to The Associated Press. “We will need more education and will discuss it after the World Series.”
Protest organizer Clyde Bellecourt, AIM’s national director and founder, said that he wanted Braves owner Ted Turner to put a halt to the “ignorant, stupid, racist behavior” and suggested other names for the team would be considered just as abhorrent, according to The Washington Post.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t call [the team] the Atlanta Bishops and hand out crucifixes to everyone who comes into the stadium. How about the Atlanta Klansmen? They could hand out sheets to everyone who comes in. They would never call the team the Atlanta Negroes,” Bellecourt said, according to the Post. “This is the way we feel when we see the chants, the war paint and the tomahawks. They (Braves officials and fans) are totally scholastically retarded about Native American culture. Like everyone else, they have a John Wayne attitude about Indian culture, tradition and history . . . and they’re ignorant to the racism that’s going on.”
The controversy hasn’t gone away. It was sparked again most recently in 2019 when the Braves and Cardinals faced off in the NLDS. Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said he felt the tomahawk chop was “a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual,” Helsley said. “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 it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that.”
The Braves issued a statement in response to Helsley’s comments, according to the Post-Dispatch:
“We appreciate and take seriously the concerns of Mr. Helsley and have worked to honor and respect the Native American community through the years. Our organization has sought to embrace all people and highlight the many cultures in Braves Country. We will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the in-game experience, and look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community once the season comes to an end.”
The Post-Dispatch reported that fans were encouraged to do the chant ahead of Game 2 and that the foam tomahawks were still out in force. When the series returned to Atlanta for Game 5, however, the tomahawks were removed from the seats, according to a later report from the Post-Dispatch.
The latest on the chop
The Braves did not have to worry as much about the tomahawk chop returning to Truist Field in 2020 as fans were not allowed in the ballpark during the regular season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It did return at the start of the 2021 season, however. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Braves encouraged the chop to return during the season opener. The report stated that the team displayed digital images of the chop and prompted the fans to make the chant during pivotal moments of the game.
The display has continued throughout the postseason, with the gesture drawing attention particularly during Braves games when broadcast cameras have turned to show fans.
Before the start of the World Series, IllumiNative, a Native American-led nonprofit that seeks to provide visibility to native people and challenge narratives around them, said in a statement that the Braves and their fans “continue to use racist imagery, chants and logos that depict Native Americans in a dehumanizing and objectifying manner,” according to Native News Online.
“For decades, Native communities have urged professional sports teams to stop using us as mascots, to stop reducing us to caricatures, and yet the Atlanta Braves have continued to turn a blind eye to our calls for justice and equity,” the statement read. “All season, we watched Braves fans use the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ and chant racist remarks. This is unacceptable; these actions by the fans, encouraged by the team and its leadership, perpetuate the dehumanization of Native Americans and reinforce stereotyping and prejudice among non-Native people. The Braves organization has caused harm and created an unwelcoming environment for Native peoples.”
At a press conference before the World Series, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the Braves’ name is different than others that have been changed, according to The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes.
“It’s important to understand that we have 30 markets around the country. They aren’t all the same. The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community,” Manfred said, per Janes. “The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the Chop. For me, that’s kind of the end of the story. In that market, we’re taking into account the Native American community.”
Manfred says the league sees the Braves name as different than other ones that have changed:
“It’s important to understand that we have 30 markets around the country. They aren’t all the same. The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community.” (cont.)
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) October 26, 2021
On Wednesday, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, issued a statement in response to Manfred’s comments, saying the NCAI has made clear with the Braves that “Native people are not mascots and degrading rituals like the ‘tomahawk chop’ that dehumanize and harm us have no place in American society.”
“The name ‘Braves,’ the tomahawk adorning the team’s uniform, and the ‘tomahawk chop’ that the team exhorts its fans to perform at home games are meant to depict and caricature not just one tribal community but all Native people, and that is certainly how baseball fans and Native people everywhere interpret them,” Sharp said in the statement.
National Congress of American Indians responds to Rob Manfred’s assertions about the Braves and the tomahawk chop: “Nothing could be further from the truth.” pic.twitter.com/CjzSzt56sV
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) October 27, 2021