In the summer of 2020 and the months that followed, messages from schools and sports teams flooded Aaron Payment’s inbox. Spurred by momentous change at higher levels, people wanted to know why they should and how they could change a Native American team name and logo. As secretary of the National Congress of American Indians, Payment saw the ripple effects.
“There’s a movement,” Payment said. “And we will not go back.”
When the World Series shifts to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday night, television viewers will see a pocket of resistance. While other professional sports franchises have backed away from or removed ties to Native American imagery, the Atlanta Braves have retrenched. In late innings and key moments, fans yell a faux war chant and swing their arms in a ritual known as the “tomahawk chop.” At Truist Park, which opened in 2017, a giant neon tomahawk beyond the center field fence slashes along with the crowd. Fans can dine at the Coors Light Chop House overlooking right field.
After years of colleges and high schools retiring Native American mascots, sometimes as required under state law, the past 18 months have seen a change at the highest level of sports. Under pressure from corporate sponsors in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national reckoning it sparked, the Washington Football Team ditched its former name, which is defined as a slur. The Cleveland Indians, who already had banished their caricature logo, will be known as the Guardians starting next year.
With the World Series spotlight on the franchise for the first time since 1999, the Braves are viewed by advocates as a holdout amid an overdue cultural shift, clinging to a name that offends and dehumanizes a minority group out of deference to fan loyalty and branding.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, CEO of advocacy group IllumiNative. “It used to be, ‘This would be almost impossible; this would be millions and millions of dollars’ — all the things the teams traditionally have thrown up as these barriers and these excuses. Now we have two major teams who have gone through this and literally thousands of schools across the country. The time is now. … It’s just really mind-boggling to watch Atlanta really dig in on this.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred made MLB’s stance clear with comments ahead of Game 1 against the Houston Astros on Tuesday, saying baseball is marketed locally and the sport must align itself with the preferences of local consumers. He said the Braves have done a “phenomenal job” of outreach to local Native American communities, the largest of which supports the Braves financially and culturally.
“The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves’ program, including the chop,” Manfred said. “For me, that’s kind of the end of the story.”
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the largest local tribe in the Atlanta region, has a long-standing relationship with the Braves, Principal Chief Richard Sneed said. It once manufactured tourist items such as tomahawks and bows and arrows, which it sold to the Braves to offer at souvenir stands. As revenue from its ownership of a casino pulled the tribe out of poverty, its relationship with the Braves changed. It is now a corporate sponsor.
The Braves declined to make anyone available for comment on the name but emphasized their efforts to connect with Native Americans in the area and honor them with exhibits at Truist Park.
Sneed viewed his tribe’s relationship with the team as “a platform” to tell the story of Cherokee culture. In July, the Braves held Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Night at Truist Park, where Sneed said tribal elders were treated “like royalty.” This year, the Braves sold T-shirts with a word that translated roughly to “ballplayer” in Cherokee syllabary; the proceeds supported the tribe’s language immersion program.
This week, Sneed said the chop is inoffensive and that focusing on it distracts from the long-standing and complex issues facing Native Americans: extreme poverty, unemployment, educational gaps and substance abuse. Sneed said he respects those in the Native American community who see the chop as problematic but bristles at outsiders who are “offended on our behalf.” The mascot of the local Cherokee high school, Sneed said, is the Braves. He views the name as a respectful symbol of strength and courage.
“If we’re angry about something, you’re going to know it,” Sneed said. “There are so many larger issues that need to be addressed. This is a minor thing.”
Echo Hawk considers Sneed a friend and did not want to call out him or the Eastern Band. Instead, she wished she could “call people in” to discuss established social science with Braves officials.
“The tomahawk chop is absolutely offensive, whether they intend it to be or not, whether they can find an Indian to say that it’s not,” Payment said. “I call that an Indian For Hire — to go out and find an Indian who says it’s not offensive. Or, ‘They’re honoring us.’ My response to that is, if it is such an honor, why are we the only race befitting of that honor? … Only Indians and animals are subject to that practice.”
To University of Michigan psychology professor Stephanie Fryberg, who is widely recognized as the leading expert on Native American mascots and their effects, Manfred’s claim of local tribal support is irrelevant. More than 20 years of research, she said, shows Native American mascots decrease Native American youths’ self-esteem and their belief in the worth of their community. They increase anxiety, stress and suicide ideation. The psychological benefits for Indigenous people being associated with mascots, Fryberg said, are nonexistent.
Those conclusions serve as Fryberg’s retort to the notion that Native Americans have bigger problems to confront than the imagery of sports teams.
“What mascots do is they take native identities and they put them in a competitive domain and they allow people to play with another group’s identity,” Fryberg said. “When people say that, you’re really missing out on the fact that your identity can help protect and buffer you from adverse events. I hear that comment a lot, and it’s such an easy thing to do, because it plays on people’s sense that, ‘Oh, it’s just a mascot.’ But it’s not just a mascot. It’s a representation of a group’s identity.”
“There’s documented psychological harm,” Fryberg added. “In the end, who cares what people’s attitudes are if we know that it’s increasing suicide ideation or we know it’s increasing depression? Why is it even a question?”
The Braves are not alone in pro sports; the NFL has the Kansas City Chiefs, whose fans also do the chop. But baseball, both inside and outside Atlanta, has ceded ground in the debate. As it evaluated its name, Cleveland canvassed Native Americans and found “the name can make it especially challenging for children to find a place for their Native identity in the community around them.” In 2019, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that seeing the tomahawk chop was “disappointing.”
“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said during the Cardinals’ National League Division Series matchup with the Braves that year. “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 Braves did not place their usual foam tomahawks on seats for Game 2 of that series, a decision the franchise said was a result of Helsley’s comments.
Team names are only part of the issue. Fans have attended Braves games in redface and headdresses. Echo Hawk and Payment noted that opposing fans will use slurs and offensive stereotypes. “Somebody starts blurting out, ‘Scalp the Indians,’ or, ‘Feed them whiskey and send them back to the res,’ ” Payment said.
“When you think about the global viewership of the World Series and you suddenly see tens of thousands of fans engaging in that behavior and suddenly you’ve got that being mimicked back to our children and our communities, it is so deeply offensive and harmful, and it makes our children oftentimes feel ashamed of who they are,” Echo Hawk said. “We are constantly reduced to these dehumanizing caricatures and stereotypes and not seen for who we are today.”
Payment imagined a stadium full of fans implored to act as if performing a minstrel show. The public response would be swift and condemnatory, and the ritual would be halted immediately. The only difference with the chop, Payment argued, is that society fails to recognize Native Americans as part of the U.S. population.
“We have objectified Indians as a relic of the past,” Payment said. “A lot of people don’t have a clue we exist still. They don’t think about how it might affect Native American youth or people.”
Payment believes those who want the Braves to keep their name already have lost and don’t know it yet.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “Some of the people involved with the decision-making of the Atlanta team are going to look back and say, ‘Oh, my God.’ The grandchild of the owners today are going to say: ‘Boy, Grandpa was a racist. He didn’t realize it, but he was a racist.’ I think it’s just a matter of time.”