MLB

Braves’ tomahawk chop: Timeline of Atlanta’s chant, and the calls for team to stop using it

The 2021 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves will resume on Friday night at Truist Park in Atlanta. If recent times are any indication, the so-called “tomahawk chop,” the gesture Braves fans do during games, is certain to have as much presence throughout the evening as the players themselves.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Game 1, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred defended Atlanta’s continued use of their name and the chop, noting that the region’s Native Americans were OK with both. Predictably, Manfred’s comments have since been criticized by Native American groups, including the National Congress of American Indians, who released a statement on Wednesday urging Fox to not broadcast the chop during World Series Games 3-5 this weekend.

We figured it might be helpful to lay out an abbreviated timeline documenting notable points in the chop’s history, as well as the pushback against the chop that has existed from the beginning.

Jul. 31, 1991

The date we’ll start this subheading with actually is in mid-October, when the New York Times published an article by Dave Anderson chronicling the chop’s rise in popularity amid the backdrop of Atlanta’s 1991 National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Within the article, Anderson noted that “the chop and the chant hadn’t begun when the Pirates were here previously.” For reference, the Pirates had played a four-game set in Atlanta from July 29-31. That means the chop first became prevalent at Braves games sometime during the months of August and September.

Lest anyone think the chop was introduced without pushback, Anderson quoted Jim Schultz, then the Braves’ director of public relations. 

“We’ve had a few complaints that the tomahawk is demeaning to native Americans,” Schultz said. “But we consider it a proud expression of unification and family.”

The Braves had only retired the “Chief Noc-A-Homa” mascot, originally played by non-Native American individuals, a few years prior. It’s unclear if Schultz and the franchise considered that character to also be a “proud expression of unification and family.” (The “Noc-A-Homa” character had been criticized dating back to at least the early ’70s.)

Aug. 9, 1991

Just over a week after the Pirates left town, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article about Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s organist Carolyn King. Reporter Terence Moore detailed how King could spur Brave fans to “[chop] the air with their right hands” by playing the A and G keys on the organ. 

Lore has it that Deion Sanders, who attended Florida State University, brought the chop to Braves games. King, however, pushed back on that account. She told Moore she had started to play the chop “about two years ago,” or during the 1989 season. (She later claimed she wasn’t aware that Sanders went to FSU, or that the “Tomahawk Chop” was their fight song.) Her reasoning for introducing the chop was that it “sounded as if it would go with a team called the Braves.” She said that “only a few people would get into it” prior to the summer of 1991.

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution revisited King’s role in introducing the chop when she announced her retirement in 2004. King said that she was a “young person” and that she didn’t “understand [her] role politically.”

Oct. 1991

The CBS broadcast of a World Series game highlighted protests outside the Metrodome in Minneapolis by Native American and civil rights activists who “have come to demonstrate against what they call a stereotypic and war-like depiction of Native Americans,” according to host Pat O’Brien. He added that such behavior is most evident, per the activists, when “it comes to fans who don warpaint and Indian headdress and perform the now-famous ‘Tomahawk chop.'” 

The CBS broadcast then featured brief interviews with Bill Means, the National Director of the American Indian Movement; then-MLB commissioner Fay Vincent; and then-Braves president Stan Kasten. Whereas Vincent acknowledged a need to address any topic whenever there’s a “significant group of Americans who are concerned about something in baseball,” Kasten evaded O’Brien’s inquiries by saying “Like all other questions on the subject, we’re going to hold off any discussion until after the series is over. Right now, we’re just going to concentrate on baseball the rest of the week.”

Oct. 5, 2019

We’re skipping ahead decades because the story by and large remained the same during the interim period. The Braves kept using and encouraging the chop despite feedback from Native American communities and activists about the dehumanizing nature of the act. 

The Braves heard the message again in October 2019. This time it was delivered by St. Louis Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsey in the midst of a playoff series.

Helsey, a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized the chop following Game 1 of the series. “I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” he said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual. 

“They are a lot of 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”.

The Braves’ response was to discourage the chop during the series — but only when Helsey was pitching.

Jul. 21, 2020

Less than a full year after Helsey made his objections known, the Braves weighed disavowing the chop entirely after the Washington Football Team changed its name. (The Braves were still unwilling to alter their name or their imagery, though Cleveland announced plans to change its name from Indians to Guardians earlier this year.)

“At this point in time, those discussions are still ongoing,” team president and CEO Derek Schiller told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a topic that deserves a lot of debate and a lot of discussion and a lot of thoughtfulness, and that’s exactly what we are doing.”

It’s unclear if the Braves gave the topic the debate, discussion, and thoughtfulness Schiller felt the subject merited. Clearly the chop is still in heavy rotation despite the team going to a “softer” approach by providing only a drum beat and visual aids around the stadium.

The Braves have since formed a “Native American Working Group” and have partnered with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, ostensibly the regional group Manfred referenced in his comments. What Manfred didn’t disclose is that the Eastern Band’s casino is a corporate sponsor of the Braves, giving them a vested interest in the franchise as a business partner.

Even then, the Eastern Band has criticized the Braves’ use of the “war chant” music the team played during the chop, suggesting they aren’t all the way on board, either. Chief Richard Sneed said the accompanying music was “just so stereotypical, like old-school Hollywood. Come on guys, it’s 2020. Let’s move on. Find something else.” 

Oct. 26, 2021

This returns us to the present day, and to Manfred’s comments on the day of the Braves’ first World Series appearance since 1999.

“The Native American community in that region is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop,” Manfred said, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. “For me, that’s kind of the end of the story. In that market, we’re taking into account the Native American community. …In Atlanta, they’ve done a great job with the Native Americans. The Native American community is the most important group to decide whether it’s appropriate or not.”

As noted above, the National Congress of American Indians released a statement disagreeing with Manfred’s assertion. The NCAI also requested that Fox, the World Series broadcaster, abstain from highlighting fans doing the chop during games.



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