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Rob Manfred said on Tuesday that the Atlanta Braves' local Native American community is fully supportive of the team, including its infamous Tomahawk Chop chant. It took less than 24 hours for one of the country's largest Native rights organizations to contradict him.
The MLB commissioner spoke with reporters ahead of Game 1 of the World Series between the Braves and Houston Astros, an event that has revived discussion around one of the most controversial fan behaviors in sports.
As he has in the past, Manfred defended the Braves' use of the chop and cited support from the local Native American community as evidence that it isn't racist.
"It's important to understand that we have 30 markets around the country. They're not all the same. The Braves have done a phenomenal job with the Native American community. The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. For me, that's kind of the end of the story. In that market, taking into account the Native American community, it works."
He later stressed that MLB needs local support for the teams to survive:
"We don't market our game on a nationwide basis. Ours is an everyday game, we gotta sell tickets every single day to the fans in that market and there are all sorts of differences among the clubs, among the regions, as to how the game is marketed."
The following day, after the Braves' 6-2 win, the National Congress of American Indians released a statement from their president Fawn Sharp reiterating their opposition to the chop and calling for MLB and its broadcast partners at Fox to refrain from showing it on television.
From the NCAI:
“Yesterday, Commissioner Manfred stated that the question of whether the ‘Braves’ mascot and ‘tomahawk chop’ fan ritual are offensive to Native people is only a local issue. He similarly asserted the league does ‘not market our game on a nationwide basis.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Major League Baseball is a global brand, it markets its World Series nationally and internationally, and the games played in Atlanta this weekend will be viewed by tens of millions of fans across the country and around the world. Meanwhile, the name ‘Braves,’ the tomahawk adorning the team’s uniform, and the ‘tomahawk chop’ that the team exhorts its fans to perform at home games are meant to depict and caricature not just one tribal community but all Native people, and that is certainly how baseball fans and Native people everywhere interpret them,” said NCAI President Fawn Sharp. “Consequently, the league and team have an obligation to genuinely listen to Tribal Nations and leaders across the United States about how the team’s mascot impacts them. NCAI, a consensus-based congress composed of hundreds of Tribal Nations from every region of this country, has made its categorical opposition to Native ‘themed’ mascots abundantly clear to sports teams, schools, and the general public for more than five decades. In our discussions with the Atlanta Braves, we have repeatedly and unequivocally made our position clear – Native people are not mascots, and degrading rituals like the ‘tomahawk chop’ that dehumanize and harm us have no place in American society. NCAI calls on the team to follow the example set by the Cleveland Guardians, and we call on Major League Baseball and the FOX Broadcasting Company to refrain from showing the ‘tomahawk chop’ when it is performed during the nationally televised World Series games in Atlanta.”
Sharp's statement specifically takes issue with Manfred's claim that MLB doesn't market its game "on a nationwide basis," a very curious thing to say out loud on the field of the nationally broadcast World Series.
She notes that MLB is indeed a global brand with not just national but international marketing, and that millions outside of Atlanta will be watching the chop. She also paints the Braves' name and chop as a "caricature" of Native people everywhere.
The Braves basically conceded the chop can be offensive to all Native people in their handling of St. Louis Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley's criticism. After Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, called the chop "a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general," the Braves opted against distributing foam tomahawks and playing the chop music when Helsley was pitching.
Of course, it's not like there's unanimous support for the chop in the Braves' own backyard, either.
Local support for the Tomahawk Chop isn't what Rob Manfred wants you to think
The group often used as evidence of local tribe support for the chop is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a federally recognized tribe in western North Carolina descended from a small group of Cherokee who remained in the area after the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
The Braves have claimed that a working group formed with the tribe supports the Braves' name and does not oppose the chop, which is likely what Manfred was referring to on Tuesday.
That working group was established after the Helsley episode. What did the tribe think before? Well, let's see what principal chief Richard Sneed had to say about the chop last year:
“That’s just so stereotypical, like old-school Hollywood,” Chief Sneed told the AJC. “Come on, guys. It’s 2020. Let’s move on. Find something else.”
It should probably be noted that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians makes much of its livelihood from Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort, which just so happens to be a Braves corporate sponsor.
A different tribe with Georgia roots was also opposed to the chop at the time of Helsley's criticism, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
To the head of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the tomahawk chop is “not an appropriate acknowledgement of tribal tradition or culture.”
“It reduces Native Americans to a caricature and minimizes the contributions of Native peoples as equal citizens and human beings,” Principal Chief James Floyd said in a statement to the AJC.
Helsley's Cherokee Nation was also more than supportive when he spoke out against the chop:
“The Cherokee Nation is proud of tribal citizen and Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a written statement, “for speaking out against stereotypes and standing up for the dignity of Native Americans in this country.
“Hopefully Ryan’s actions will better inform the national conversation about inappropriate depictions of Native Americans,” the chief said.
Both the Cherokee and Creek trace their roots to the southeast, Braves territory, before their forcible removal by the American government. Clearly, opposition to the chop is common among Native groups, or at least those who aren't marketing their casino via the Braves.
That's pretty tough to square with something else Manfred said on Wednesday:
"I think the Native American community is the most important group to decide whether it's appropriate or not and they have been unwaveringly supportive of the Braves."