ATLANTA — Depending on your perspective, the tomahawk chop is either a rousing, intense, rumble-your-soul call-to-arms or a cartoonish, ignorant modern-day minstrel show.
What it’s not, by any estimation, is an inoffensive little go-get-‘em fight song. Once again, the Atlanta Braves find themselves in the spotlight over the chant, and once again, the team faces a choice: control the chop, or be controlled by the reaction to it.
The latest flare-up in the nearly three-decade-old saga of the chop arrived in Atlanta this week with the St. Louis Cardinals. Reliever Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation and one of the few Native Americans in the majors, was asked about the chop prior to Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, and he didn’t hold back.
“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said. “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 Redskins and stuff like that.”
It’s the latest verse in a song that’s nearly 30 years old.
History of the chop
Like the Florida State Seminoles and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Braves roll out the chop every home game, the whooa-oh-ohhhhhs echoing alongside a pounding drumbeat, a recorded brass section, and the arm-pumps of tens of thousands of fans. The Braves have done it this way ever since 1991, back when ex-FSU cornerback Deion Sanders joined the team and a few Noles in the stands welcomed him with the chant. Sanders left the Braves decades ago; the chop has stuck around.
The Braves’ connection to Native American iconography drew protests even back in Deion’s day — Native American groups protested the team during its appearance in the 1991 World Series — and through the years, Atlanta has refined and streamlined its brand as times have changed. Long gone is “Chief Noc-A-Homa,” the mascot who would do “rain dances” on the pitcher’s mound before hanging out and greeting kids in his teepee in left field. (Yes, really.)
More recently, the team distanced itself from the “Laughing Brave” logo. Since 1991, though, the chop has remained a constant, sometimes tricked up with light shows and videos, sometimes with organ accompaniment, always showing up when the Braves want to rally the fanbase through a critical inning.
After their long run of success in the 1990s and 2000s, the Braves had spent the middle of the 2010s languishing in obscurity, buried deep in the standings and well out of the national spotlight. But starting with last year’s brief playoff run, the Braves were again on the national stage … and that brought the chop back to the attention of a country and a culture that’s changed significantly since the Braves last hoisted a pennant.
“Our organization has sought to embrace all people and highlight the many cultures in Braves Country,” the team said Saturday in a statement, responding to Helsley’s criticism. “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.” (On Sunday morning, Braves officials referred Yahoo Sports back to that statement.)
The key words in the statement come at its conclusion: “once the season comes to an end.” Standing pat on the chop is no longer an option. The Braves have four possible chop options in this offseason, ranging from an aggressive double-down to a complete shutdown. Fortunately for Atlanta, other teams and organizations have already cut a path in each direction. Some have led to consensus, others to dead ends:
NASCAR: Get it outta here
When NASCAR decided in 2015 to ask fans to refrain from bringing the Confederate flag from its tracks, the response was immediate and deafening: Confederate flags blanketed Darlington Speedway, home of the Southern 500, like snow on the Rockies. Not even the voice of NASCAR demigod Dale Earnhardt Jr., an opponent of the flag, could drown out the howls of protest. Old-school NASCAR fans have long claimed the sport abandoned them, and to them, this was only further proof of that. Plus, the people who piously criticized NASCAR for not disassociating itself from the flag didn’t exactly rush in to fill stands once it did.
Washington Redskins: Never ever change
The Washington Redskins’ name requires even more mental gymnastics to justify than the tomahawk chop. (Imagine what the reaction would be to a team named for literally any other minority skin color, and then try to defend the name.) Team owner Daniel Snyder’s defense against demands to change the team name is simple: No. Not now, not ever. It’s won him the loyalty of a certain segment of his fanbase, and the undying scorn of pretty much everyone else, an object lesson in the danger of hanging onto an outdated brand as culture changes all around you.
Cleveland Indians: Pursue incrementalism
Like the Braves, the Indians drew sharp criticism for their own Native American-themed branding — in Cleveland’s case, the grinning, bright-red Chief Wahoo, which lasted on hats and uniforms all the way until last season. Although the team still sells Chief Wahoo gear at the stadium, the caricature is no longer used in any on-field capacity. (The Braves’ tomahawk logo is a whole separate issue, one that’s flown under the radar while the chop is still in place.)
Florida State: Strike a deal
Florida State University, where the chant originated and persists to this day, managed to work around the NCAA’s ban on derogatory mascots by demonstrating that it had the support of Florida’s Seminole tribe. Although FSU and the Seminole tribe’s current headquarters are literally at opposite sides of the state from one another, both have seen the relationship evolve from one of appropriation to one of respect.
Of course, it’s worth noting that even Florida State’s agreement — which seems the closest thing to an optimal outcome — has drawn critics. The Seminole tribe of Oklahoma in 2013 released a statement that “condemns the use of all American Indian sports-team mascots in the public school system, by college and university level and by professional sports teams.” As with any contentious issue, ask 10 people their opinion on Native American mascots and you’re likely to get 10 different answers.
The key for the Braves, then, will be trying to navigate the treacherous straits of interested parties and levels of offense. Does the view of a Native American like Helsley carry more weight than those of lifelong Braves fans? Whose opinion matters more: an angry Twitter user from 10 states away parachuting in to slap the “racist” label on the chop and everyone who does it, or a Georgia family who’s attended Braves games for decades, foam tomahawks in hand? Some Native Americans have embraced the chop and other “Indian”-themed mascots, others decry them — so whose voice gets priority?
In all likelihood, the chop’s days as a sanctioned team activity are numbered. You’ll never stop fans in the stands from chopping during crucial moments, but that doesn’t mean the team has to keep pumping the Pavlovian drums and triple-decibel fight song out over the field. At that point, it will become an individual choice whether to do the chop, rather than an official mandate NOT to do it.
That difference — individual fandom versus team-sanctioned celebration — is the key to the chop’s future, and the only real way for the Braves to thread an always-moving cultural needle.
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