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It’s time for the Braves to end the tomahawk chop

The Atlanta Braves’ fan chant and hashtag is racist, and causes measurable harm. We shouldn’t be accepting this in 2019.

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves are without doubt one of the most talented young teams in Major League Baseball. That talent has been on full display in the club’s first-round playoff matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals in an excellent five-game NLDS series. During the series, a Cardinals rookie made waves by calling out Braves fans for a longtime chant that is something of a ritual at Atlanta home baseball games, the tomahawk chop. Per Derrick Goold:

The contrast was striking Thursday as Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, pride of Tahlequah, Okla., and member of the Cherokee Nation, took the mound at a pivotal moment in the eighth inning and a stadium full of Braves fans swung foam tomahawks distributed by the team and chanted as they have for nearly three decades in Atlanta.

The cheer, called the “Tomahawk Chop,” was not directed toward Helsley, per se.

Still, he felt something personal.

“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said Friday afternoon at SunTrust Park. “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 it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that.

“That’s the disappointing part,” he continued in a conversation with The Post-Dispatch. “That stuff like this still goes on. It’s just disrespectful, I think.”

Helsley is right. The tomahawk chop is racist, and although accounts of its origins vary, none of them include according any respect to Indigenous or Native peoples. According to a 2006 article in Savannah Now, the chant originated at Florida State University and was used only unofficially because of its racist overtones:

In the 1960s, members of FSU’s Marching Chiefs band chanted the melody of a popular cheer, “Massacre,” during football games. In a sense, “Massacre” was the long version of the current war chant. During a football game against Auburn in 1984, the Marching Chiefs began to perform the cheer. Some students behind the band joined in and continued the “war chant” portion after the band had ceased. The result, which was not very melodic at the time, sounded more like chants by American Indians in Western movies. Most say it came from the fraternity section, but many spirited FSU fans added the “chopping” motion, a repetitious bend at the elbow, to symbolize a tomahawk swinging down. The chant continued largely among the student body during the 1985 season, and by the 1986 season was a stadiumwide activity. The Marching Chiefs refined the chant, adding its own special brand of musical accompaniment — and the result still is seen and heard today. The war chant soon spread around the nation to other teams with Native American names, such as Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs. However, the chopping motion gained more attention — and criticism — than did the chant itself. Former FSU President Dale Lick discussed the war chant in a 1993 column for USA Today: “Some traditions we cannot control. For instance, in the early 1980s, when our band, the Marching Chiefs, began the now-famous arm motion while singing the ‘war chant,’ who knew that a few years later the gesture would be picked up by other teams’ fans and named the ‘tomahawk chop’? It’s a term we did not choose and officially do not use.”

It was Deion Sanders who brought the chant with him from FSU to the Atlanta Braves in the early 1990s, and it’s now more closely associated with the Braves than it is with FSU. From the Sun-Sentinel in 1991:

In Atlanta, fans picked up on the latest craze at a Cubs game in May.

”It steamrolled from there,” said Miles McRea, director of promotion and entertainment for the Braves. “If you don’t do the tomahawk chop sitting in the stands, you’d feel embarrassed.

”I have no doubt the Indian war chant and the arm movement did originate at Florida State. The tomahawk-chop terminology is definitely Braves, but the war chant was begun at Florida State.”

The Atlanta Braves made a World Series appearance in 1991 - and their fans brought the tomahawk chop with them. The chop has made it into marketing encyclopedias about how to manage controversy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chick-fil-a cow does the tomahawk chop. You can even ask Alexa to do the tomahawk chop now.

Ubiquity, however, does not equal correctness.

Even in 1991, however, there were large protests by Indigenous and Native Americans profiled by the New York Times outside of the stadia where the World Series was held as part of the “Stop the Chop” movement. Jane Fonda was called out in the New York Times for participating in it. In 2008, Cherokee Nation called out then-Senator Scott Brown for using the chant to mock opponent Elizabeth Warren, calling it “racist”. Per Slate’s L.V. Anderson:

Like most professional athletic appropriations of Native American culture, the tomahawk chop and the war chant have little basis in Native American history. There is no indication that Native Americans ever made the gesture known today as the tomahawk chop. Tomahawks were historically not only used as weapons by Native Americans but also revered as sacred objects. Similarly, scalping—which FSU’s fight song encourages its athletes to do to their opponents—was practiced by both European settlers and Native Americans during the Colonial era, and it wasn’t widespread among Native Americans. The spread of the popular association of Native Americans with mock savagery probably dates to the early 20th century, around the time the Boy Scouts began using Native American-inspired terms and images in its curriculum.

More recently, Attorney Chase Iron Law gave this interview to MSNBC on behalf of his tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux, explaining why the chop is a racial slur. Amanda Blackhorse told the Daily Beast earlier this year - accurately - that “Native people have been calling for the end of the Tomahawk Chop for decades. This is not something new.”

It’s also worth noting that the tomahawk chop has real, measurable, detrimental effects on Native and Indigenous people. In 2008, this study found that stereotyping of Native Americans at sports arenas - such as the tomahawk chop, which was specifically cited in the study - “was not only associated with depressed self-esteem (Study 2); it was also associated with decreased feelings of community worth (Study 3).

Studies 2 and 3 suggest that salient social representations of American Indians undermine positive feelings of worth, whether the focus is the individual self or the communal self.

These studies also revealed that the psychological consequences of these images are more complex than would be implied by a straightforward application of the stereotyping literature.” In other words, stereotypes like the tomahawk chop were associated with higher rates of alcoholism, dropping out of school, and even suicide. Vitally, this study found this:

Although pro-mascot advocates suggest that American Indian mascots are complimentary and honorific and should enhance well-being, the research presented here runs contrary to this position. American Indian mascots do not have negative consequences because their content or meaning is inherently negative. Rather, American Indian mascots have negative consequences because, in the contexts in which they appear, there are relatively few alternate characterizations of American Indians. The current American Indian mascot representations function as inordinately powerful communicators, to natives and nonnatives alike, of how American Indians should look and behave. American Indian mascots thus remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them. Moreover, because identity construction is not solely an individual process (i.e., you cannot be a self by yourself), the views of American Indians held by others can also limit the ways in which American Indians see themselves.

Similar results were found in a more recent study in 2014, and noted in this law review article in 2011, and this paper in 1992 warning of harms to Indigenous student learning, and this other paper in 1992 warning harms to Indigenous students’ identity, and in this book entitled How to Be An Indian in the 21st Century, and this book in 1998 called Communicating Prejudice. This article from 2003 detailed that people who participated in group sports cheers like the tomahawk chop were more likely to view Indigenous people as “lazy, weak, undependable, unpatriotic.” Communicating Prejudice found measurable physical symptoms amongst Native people as a result of witnessing the tomahawk chop. This book drew connections between the tomahawk chop and the staggering 85% unemployment rate on some reservations, noting that employers are unlikely to hire people about whom they believe the chop is an accurate or semi-accurate stereotype.

It should be noted this is a very, very small sampling. There are literally hundreds of books and studies and articles in all manner of media retreading this ground, all of which make largely the same findings. The tomahawk chop is harmful to Native and Indigenous people, full-stop. The science, as they say, is settled. We know this. It is a fact.

Defenders of the chop have pointed to an agreement between FSU and the Seminole Tribe of Florida which ostensibly allows the use of certain aspects of Indigenous and Native culture for sports mascots and cheers, including the so-called “tomahawk chop.” The problem is that this argument is patently flawed to the point of absurdity. For one thing, the Atlanta Braves are not, and have never been, a party to this agreement, nor has the team ever made any efforts to become a part of the agreement. From a moral perspective, the Braves claiming the right to (what is, at best, cultural appropriation) because that same right was granted to a not-for-profit educational institution is, at best, dubious.

To be fair, that in and of itself isn’t decisive from a legal perspective. The law recognizes “third party beneficiaries” - entities or persons which aren’t parties to a contract but which reap those benefits anyway. But arguing that the Atlanta Braves are a third-party beneficiary of FSU’s agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida is legally, well, stupid. The point of the agreement FSU made with the Seminole Tribe of Florida was to retain the right to use “Seminole” as the team nickname, as the NCAA had threatened to pull the name as offensive. There’s simply no way allowing a professional baseball team in a different state to use a racist chant was an anticipated part of that bargain.

But there’s another reason that the FSU-Seminole Tribe of Florida agreement doesn’t hold water here, and that’s because Indigenous people aren’t a monolith. For example, the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, not a party to the FSU agreement, is staunchly opposed to it.

That contrasts with the more populous Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, which in October 2013 officially resolved that it “condemns the use of all American Indian sports-team mascots in the public school system, by college and university level and by professional sports teams.” In a document signed by Leonard M. Harjo, the Principal Chief of the Nation, it stated that academic research shows that the mascots and images harm “all children” and “violate religious icons.” Seminole Tribe of Florida members tend to shrug off that as the view of a relative who visits and then takes his views back home.

“Even though we have a lengthy history of fighting the U.S. government and hiding out in the Everglades to survive, in my lifetime we have never been mistreated or experienced any prejudices from other cultures,” [Seminole Tribe of Florida Elder Louise] Gopher wrote in an e-mail. “But I know other Native tribes have experienced these difficulties, and may still be experiencing them, so I try to see it from their point of view. And that’s why they are so insulted.”

In fact, the opinion among a plurality of attorneys who are experts in this area is that the FSU-Seminole Tribe of Florida agreement isn’t even enforceable, as Stephanie Bollinger wrote for the Brigham Young Law Review.

Also, some tribal mascot-use agreements should be ruled as unenforceable if it can be shown that they were not entered into voluntarily by Indian tribes. Many Indian tribes are currently dealing with high levels of poverty; their strong financial need, coupled with the lavish monetary incentives dangled by the various sports and educational institutions in exchange for authorized use of the tribal name, calls into question “the degree of voluntariness” surrounding the formation of these agreements.

So really, what we have on the one side is a veritable mountain of evidence of harm and thirty years of near-unanimous opposition from Native and Indigenous groups across the country. On the other hand, we have an agreement between a not-for-profit state school and a single Tribe which doesn’t mention the Braves at all, and is likely not even legally enforceable.

What does that leave? Extremely bad (and inaccurate) takes like this from FanSided’s Josh Matthews:

For better or worse, the Tomahawk chop is engrained into Atlanta Braves culture and has been for close to 30 years now.

A war rally cry used by Native Americans, it’s become the sports fans’ rally cry first for the Florida State Seminoles and then the Kansas City Chiefs before spreading to the Atlanta Braves. . . .

As an Atlanta Braves fan and a non-Native American, it’s hard to imagine the chant as a symbol of racism or hate. It unites the stadium, the sounds when coming from 40,000+ fans is eerie and haunting; it’s got to get in the heads of opposing players.

Interestingly, Helsey was apparently not affected by it when he came to the mound in game one, but noticed it (or at least said something about it) more so after game two when he wasn’t pitching. Kudos to him for being able to completely faze out 45,000 people. I can’t focus for more than a few minutes on much of anything.

Whether you view it as right or wrong, it’s here. It exists. It’s evolved since it’s onset. It’s here to stay for the time being.

First off, the tomahawk chop was not a war cry used by Native Americans (and the fact that Josh evidently thinks that it was is just more proof of how harmful these stereotypes truly are). Second, we now have thirty years of evidence that it is both caused by, and in turn the cause of, racism and hate. Third, that Helsley was evidently able to tune out thousands of people engaged in hurling a racial slur at him doesn’t make the slur less harmful. Finally, the idea that the tomahawk chop is here now and therefore not going anywhere is not, in itself, evidence of its beneficience. Instead, Josh is simply saying that its continued existence is more important than any harm it causes because it already exists, which is circular reasoning at best.

I’m not singling out Josh here because I want to pick on him. Instead, I want to make the point that defenses of the tomahawk chop boil down, by and large, to what Josh wrote: it’s here, it’s not going anywhere, and how can 45,000 people really be racist anyway? The answer is in something called willful blindness: you know something is probably harmful, but you don’t want to know for sure because you don’t want to give that thing up. That’s how Braves fans can keep the tomahawk chop after thirty years of research saying, unequivoically, that it’s causing significant harm.

Why? Because the tomahawk chop is racist - so much so that Manfred himself admitted as much in an interview with the Washington Post’s Kevin Blackistone back in February.

there is baseball’s Atlanta club, which has been fighting to get its fans to stop cheering the team by employing the so-called tomahawk chop — an invention of those who colonized and all but exterminated native people that purports native people as violent.

“The Braves have taken steps to take out the tomahawk chop,” Manfred said. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that.”

The Braves said all the right - if evasive - things in their response to Helsley. The problem is that so long as the response is a collective shrug from fans like Josh Matthews, nothing will change. This really boils down to a question: is three seconds of tomahawk chopping more important to you than the well-being of Native or Indigenous people telling us it’s harmful? That harm isn’t hypothetical, remember: we know it happens.

So let’s rephrase this. You can push a button. If you push it, the tomahawk chop goes away - forever. But on the other hand, fewer Native and Indigeonous children face school absences, alcoholism, suicidal ideation. More Native and Indigenous people get jobs. Native and Indigenous people face less discrimination. Do you push that button?

Your answer to that question says a lot about you. Make it a good one.