Sports

M.L.B. Commissioner Can’t Hear Native Voices Over Atlanta’s Chop

It’s 2021, and we still see fans doing tomahawk chops at sporting events and hear cringe-worthy faux war chants straight out of a spaghetti western.

We still have team names and imagery that mock Native Americans.

We still must confront this spectacle of ignorance on the biggest stages, including this week in the World Series.

High schools and colleges long ago began moving away from symbolism and gestures caricaturing Native Americans. In professional sports, the N.F.L. franchise in the nation’s capital, bowing to pressure from corporate sponsors, became the Washington Football Team, jettisoning the slur it was known by. The Cleveland Indians will soon become the Guardians.

The Atlanta Braves did not get the memo.

When the Houston Astros play Atlanta in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night, racist iconography will be on full display. We will see a field full of athletes playing for an Atlanta team named after people who suffered through genocide and land theft, and still sit at the margins of society today.

Time after time, 41,000 fans, most of them white, will rise and wave their arms in a chopping motion while whooping a faux Native battle cry.

The team primed this behavior for years. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the franchise had a mascot named Chief Noc-A-Homa prance around. He had a sidekick: Princess Win-A-Lotta. (I kid you not.) Though the team’s practice of doling out foam tomahawks has faded, the club still goads fans to whoop with the sounds of a beating drum.

A fan performed the chant during Game 4 of the 1996 World Series.Credit…Doug Pensinger/ALLSPORT

Major League Baseball and its commissioner, Rob Manfred, have done little to discourage the archaic mockery, either. Though Manfred hailed the Cleveland team for its steady stripping away of offensive rituals and for changing its nickname to the Guardians, when asked by a reporter this week about the derogatory team name and celebrations in Atlanta, the commissioner immediately obfuscated.

Manfred claimed that each of the league’s teams must be treated differently because baseball is a regional game, even though he was kicking off a nationally televised event called the World Series.

Native Americans in the area are “wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop,” Manfred claimed, pointing to outreach the club has made to tribes in the region.

It took me less than a day to find just such a network of Native Americans, who are unwilling to back the team’s mascot or related traditions.

“The commissioner is playing fast and loose with the term ‘wholly,’” said Jakeli Swimmer, a 31-year-old graduate student and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a tribe of roughly 16,000 with Georgia roots whose leadership has apartnership with the Braves. “He is using our tribe as an excuse and a cover. He is saying things without taking the time to understand that there are plenty of us who oppose what that team is doing.”

“I am totally against the Atlanta Braves name, the mascot and the tomahawk chop,” said Missy Crow, 59, a community organizer who lives on tribal land, a hilly, river-crossed countryside near the Smoky Mountains. “This is cultural appropriation and a mocking slap in the face.”

“We are not a monolith,” said Natalie Welch, an assistant professor at Linfield University in Oregon who grew up in the Eastern Band’s tribal territory. She explained that groups of people far from power, who are virtually invisible in dominant culture, sometimes allow themselves to be used as tokens — even if it means going against the group’s interests in exchange for validation. “You become willing to take scraps, just to be seen.”

M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred in a news conference this week said Native Americans in the Atlanta area are “wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop.”Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

To Welch, that’s a big part of why some tribal members lend their credibility to a billion-dollar franchise. She said there is also a large swath of members who are indifferent.

“Then there are people like me,” she said. “We’re saying what the Braves do is humiliating. It makes it easier for our communities to be marginalized, traumatized and objectified.”

Welch’s evolution on the subject embodies its nuance. Like many Native Americans, she did not think twice about her love for the Washington Football Team and Atlanta’s pro baseball team when she was growing up. It was a family thing, and she knew many families who felt similarly.

But then she became one of the few who left the tribe’s land, headed off to college and did not come back. From the outside, she saw things differently. Now she adamantly opposes the fake chants and the cartoonish team names and mascots at every level of sports.

Some Native American schools use the imagery, a relic of early 20th century efforts to assimilate. Welch graduated from Cherokee High, which uses “Braves” as its nickname. She wants that moniker gone from her school, too.

The Eastern Band’s leadership has taken a different tack.

The tribal chief, Richard Sneed, helped orchestrate a cultural partnership with the M.L.B. team after it reached out three years ago, he said.

The tribe’s casino has long been a corporate sponsor of the team, and the cultural partnership, he said, brings the tribe extra publicity. He added that the team had produced a video telling the Eastern Band’s story and had contributed roughly $30,000 to the tribe.

Sneed has no issue with the name, seeing it as a reflection of strength, but he rolls his eyes at the chop. “I don’t necessarily have an issue with people swinging their arm, but the whole war chant, that’s hokey,” he said. “I told them, man, that’s like 1940s, 1950s spaghetti western stuff.”

Did Sneed ever prod the team to change? Never, he said.

The Eastern Band maintains deep ties to Georgia even though the tribe was driven from the state in the 19th century. It is part of the Cherokee Nation, which, along with the Muscogee Nation, has expressed adamant opposition to the team’s tired act.

“The caricature and appropriation of a race of people, we want it stopped,” said Jason Salsman, a spokesman for the Muscogee.

The team’s practice of handing out foam tomahawks faded in the 2019 playoffs, when St. Louis Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said he found the chop insulting.Credit…John Bazemore/Associated Press

Those tribes are not alone. The Cleveland franchise decided, in part, to change its name after consulting with Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of the Tulalip nation in Washington State. Her recent polling showed that up to 75 percent of Native Americans oppose symbols of Indigenous people in sports, with the number shooting higher among younger age groups.

Symbolism and sports are a potent mix. Think of the ardent, practically religious devotion many fans have simply for the insignia of their favorite team. Think of how images of a Black quarterback kneeling during the national anthem set off a firestorm that has now burned for years.

So it should be no surprise that Native Americans feel the reverberations when teams’ stereotypical imagery appears on the biggest stages.

“There are now dozens of studies showing the adverse effects for native people,” Fryberg said. “There are certainly no psychological benefits at all. Instead, we are left with harm. Depression, suicide ideation and lowered self-esteem.”

If you watch the game on Friday, ask yourself this: Why should racist imagery be more important than ending a long cycle of humiliating our most marginalized citizens?

It’s 2021, and time for change.

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