Cardinals rookie reliever Ryan Helsley made his postseason debut in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves in Atlanta on Thursday. Helsley, from Tahlequah, Oklahoma and a member of Cherokee Nation, saw the crowd at SunTrust Park chant as they swung their foam tomahawks, the Braves’ tradition known as the “Tomahawk Chop.”
The “Tomahawk Chop” has drawn criticism for being culturally insensitive. The Braves are not alone as Cleveland’s baseball team and the NFL’s team from Washington have also received criticism for similar reasons.
The Braves have more or less ignored the criticism, though they did phase out mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa in the late 1980’s. Meanwhile, commissioner Rob Manfred has stumbled in addressing the issue.
Helsley added his own criticism of the “Tomahawk Chop,” Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Saturday. Helsley said, “I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general. 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.”
Helsley added, “That’s the disappointing part. That stuff like this still goes on. It’s just disrespectful, I think.”
The Braves responded to Helsley’s criticism on Saturday, issuing a statement in which they said, “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 County. 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.”
As Goold notes, the “Tomahawk Chop” isn’t unique to the Braves. It originated with the Florida State Seminoles, who received written permission from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The “Tomahawk Chop” spread 4 hours north to Atlanta and became cemented as a tradition during the Braves’ run of excellence in the 1990’s. It is not, in the grand scheme of things, that old of a tradition. That the team and fans have held onto it to tightly says more about their being resistant to change and being told what to do.