Almost two years ago, Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, an Indigenous person and member of the Cherokee Nation, made waves for courageously calling out the racist “tomahawk chop” with which Atlanta’s baseball team has become synonymous.
“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said Friday 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.”
Atlanta’s baseball team thereafter promised it would look into the tomahawk chop, even removing the “Chop On” sculpture from outside Truist Field. Nevertheless, even at the time, the team indicated that eliminating the tomahawk chop was not necessarily a goal:
Letter sent to Braves season ticketholders says team name will not be changing, chop is "one of the many issues that we are working through." (Full letter: https://t.co/nDojeh00Rm) (h/t Marty Buccafusco) pic.twitter.com/dpmUCFDtSB— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) July 12, 2020
If at the time you concluded that the team was simply waiting for everything to blow over so they could go back to normal, you were unfortunately prescient.
During Red Sox pitching change tonight in Atlanta pic.twitter.com/aXVifw7aps— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) June 17, 2021
I’ve written before about the real, quantifiable harm done by caricatures and stereotypes of Indigenous people in sports, from mascots to the tomahawk chop. But let’s be honest: it’s the year 2021. Anyone who is doing or defending the tomahawk chop knows what profoundly harmful effects it has on Native and Indigenous people and wants to either perpetuate those harms or simply doesn’t care. It’s that apathy which is always, as writer J.M. Dilliard notes, the greater evil. And yes, I will receive death threats and rape threats for this, because I always do. Most of those people won’t have read past the first line. But frankly, I don’t care. This has gone on long enough.
It is absolutely galling that Major League Baseball will on the one hand remove the All-Star Game from Atlanta because of Georgia’s new voter suppression law, and then on the other hand ignore that same team urging its fans to engage in racist cosplay. MLB could ban the chant tomorrow. And no, that’s not an extreme reaction; the chop is even used by racists to denigrate Indigenous people outside of the sports context.
Amidst all the ref-working, bad faith arguments, false equivalencies, and targeted attacks on reporters by the far right since videos showing a group of teens from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky hooting, jeering, and mocking a Native American elder were made public, one piece of evidence can’t be hand-waved away or pettifogged until the truth is unrecognizable: the Tomahawk Chop.
In multiple videos, the students—some of whom, prior to gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, were allegedly howling “MAGA!” at random female passers-by—can be seen engaging in the familiar chant, bringing their arm downward as if wielding a tomahawk while belting out a crude version of traditional Native American songs. Fans of the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, Florida State University, and numerous high schools with Native American mascots have been chopping away for decades. But make no mistake: The chant in and of itself is considered a slur by Native Americans and advocacy groups have plaintively asked sports teams to stop rubber-stamping this behavior since it first gained prominence.
That the Tomahawk Chop is racist is a fact. Indigenous people overwhelmingly consider it a slur, and we are obligated to defer to their judgment because this is an issue about them. But here’s the problem: this goes much deeper than an offensive chant. Atlanta’s blog on SBNation is even called “Talking Chop.” Should we not be better than this?
There will be those of you who consider this “cancel culture” or “wokeness” or the like. That’s interesting, however, seeing as I get more death and rape threats from posting about the tomahawk chop than I have from all of my other articles and posts combined, and that’s saying something seeing as I’m a trans woman with a public platform. But frankly, Indigenous people have been protesting against the tomahawk chop for its entire existence. And no, Atlanta’s baseball team isn’t the only organization using this racist tradition, but that doesn’t make it right. Rhonda LeValdo, an Indigenous woman writing for Vox, explains why:
So many of the images used in the Kansas City games — the arrowhead, which is specifically Native American; the horse called “War Paint” they prance around the field before the game; the beating drums; and that tomahawk chop — are used in disrespectful and often bastardized contexts. For example, Native people respect the drum, and that drum is never used in the presence of alcohol. War Paint is used to mark our horses and warriors to protect them. Using our cultural ways to “pump up” your team is disrespectful and racist.
SBNation’s own Mike Bates wrote brilliantly about this a few years ago:
We continue to participate, largely unknowingly, in the marginalization of Native Americans every day, and rather than do something to improve the conditions on reservations across this country, we have elected to instead pretend like we’re honoring them. Maybe we would do a better job of honoring them if we made sure reservations had access to adequate healthcare, education, and food. Maybe we can stop pretending that everything is fine for Native people because many tribes have a casino and that, because of that, we’re entitled to take whatever we want from them for our sports culture.
Even former proponents of the chant have now recognized what it is: a racist relic of a shameful American past. Essentially, what the United States did was commit genocide against Native peoples and then use caricatures of those same peoples as sports mascots and chants.
LeValdo put this dichotomy in striking terms.
I met a man last year in Lawrence, Kansas, who was a member of the Boy Scouts of America’s Tribe of Mic-o-Say, whose members dress up as Native Americans and do powwow dances. The Mic-o-Say are based in Missouri and eastern Kansas and state their mission is “to make ethical choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Scout Law.” The group was founded by H. Roe Bartle, a white man whose Scout moniker “Chief Lone Bear” gave the Kansas City football team its name.
The man I spoke to was also a military veteran. He refused to believe that his dressing up as a Native American is cultural appropriation, instead saying the clothing and dances “honor” Native Americans by continuing their traditions.
I asked him how he feels about people who pretend to be veterans when they are not. That is what the Native headdress equates to: Chiefs went to battle and earned it, much like the medals military veterans earn. But he refused to see the correlation.
But let’s be honest: nothing is going to change. After all, that’s what we do in America.
Instead of learning from our history and working to dismantle the many injustices and inequities which plague our society, we simply pretend that this country dropped fully formed from the sky. This is just the latest example; the tomahawk chop honors Native Americans, so long as you don’t think too hard about why Native people have the highest rates of poverty in the country which forcibly displaced them. The tomahawk chop treats Indigenous people as faded relics from a long-gone distant past, rather than a living, breathing group of cultures fighting to survive against the society that tried to destroy them first by arms and then by apathy.
So if you’ve If you have the gall to pretend to be an Indigenous person, at least spend some time learning about the culture you’re appropriating and the conditions our enmity and apathy have forced that culture to endure. You don’t honor a culture by donning a caricature of their identity like a costume for a few hours. But then, no racist ever believed themselves to be anything but beneficent anyway.
Sheryl Ring is a consumer rights and civil rights attorney practicing in the Chicago, Illinois area. You can reach her on Twitter @Ring_Sheryl. This post is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, and does not create any attorney-client relationship.