Last Friday, Ryan Helsley could have said nothing.
A 25-year-old rookie pitcher in the relief rotation for the St. Louis Cardinals, Helsley is currently playing in his first-ever Major League Baseball playoff series, against the Atlanta Braves. After the Cardinals claimed Game 1 last Thursday night in Atlanta, Helsley could have put his head down and just receded into the background. He didn’t, and thank goodness for it.
Helsley is a citizen of Cherokee Nation, and after witnessing the Atlanta home crowd’s infamous tomahawk chop and chant up close—in which fans raise their elbows up and chop their arms down while imitating a made-up Native war chant—he told the St. Louis Dispatch exactly how he felt watching the fans pretend to be their imagined version of him and other Natives.
“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 it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that... That’s the disappointing part. That stuff like this still goes on. It’s just disrespectful, I think.”
The Braves, in response, voiced their concern. On Saturday, the team released a statement claiming that it is taking Helsley’s concerns “seriously,” adding that it will “continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand.” It was a say-nothing series of words, clearly forced into being by the simple fact that it’s a bad look to have a Native person on an opposing team, in the playoffs, call them out for their foot-dragging. Just this past spring, the Braves, supposedly in the middle of undefined efforts to curtail their fans’ continued use of the motion and chant at home games, designed, printed, and sold t-shirts in the official team store that featured basic instructions for fans on how to do the tomahawk chop. Given the fact that this feat of fandom barely requires instructions—just show up and follow along with the crowd—it was hardly an accidental branding decision.
“The Braves” is a vague, amorphous team name, but its reference has always been crystal clear. In 1912, the team, then located in Boston, were bought by James Gaffney, a member of Tammany Hall, which chose to use a nondescript Native chief as their own symbol. Gaffney changed the team name from Rustlers to Braves and changed the logo to that of a Native man wearing an eagle-feather headdress.
As the team moved to Milwaukee and then Atlanta, the name and the logo moved with it. In 1983, the Braves retired their racist mascot, Chief Noc-A-Homa, a character for whom the team went as far as to build a teepee in the left field bleachers of Fulton County Stadium; the mascot would perform what could only loosely be described as a war dance whenever a Braves player hit a home run. But the team lost 19 of its next 21 games and Chief Noc-A-Homa and his teepee were brought back at the behest of the fans. The team finally retired him for good in 1986.
Three years later, the logo was changed to a cursive stenciling of the word “Braves,” which sat above a tomahawk. (The stadium mascot Atlanta used at home games for the next three decades was one by the name of Homer, a human-like character with a baseball for a head that wore a Braves uniform, a clear rip-off of Mr. Met. The team recently updated their mascot to a character called Blooper, a clear rip-off of the Phillie Phanatic.) The discontinuation of Chief Noc-A-Homa and the logo alteration were supposed to be the first steps toward the franchise understanding and correcting its decades-long capitalization on harmful pseudo-Native imagery; instead, it was followed by a quick backwards hop that has extended all the way into the 2019 playoffs.
In 1991, the tomahawk chop and accompanying chant rooted itself into the psyche of Atlanta Braves fans with little concern by team management or its fan base. Deion Sanders, a dual-sport standout for the baseball and football teams of Florida State University, brought the chop with him to Atlanta when he made the jump to the pros that year. Florida State, unlike the majority of sports programs with Native mascots, has long been an active partner with the namesake for its mascot, the Seminole Tribe. The motion is among a number of Seminole-themed crowd traditions that FSU works into its sports events, the most famous being the horse-riding live Seminole mascot that thrusts a spear into midfield ahead of every football game.
In these specific instances, FSU obtained the approval of the Seminole Tribe, one of the major political players in the Sunshine State thanks to the sovereign nation’s robust financial health. As long as the Seminole approve of the proceedings, it matters little what any one else, Native or not, thinks about them. That kind of proactive consideration for the desires and feelings of Native nations and their people, unfortunately, is a rarity in the world of professional sports.
Atlanta, like their MLB counterparts, the Cleveland Indians—or the NFL’s Washington R-words and Kansas City Chiefs, or the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks—did not initially exist as partners with any Native nations, nor do they now. They did not and have not sought approval before hawking the latest fad for a quick buck or a tone-deaf crowd motivator. None of these franchises represent a singular Native nation. Instead, in choosing such opaque terms for team names, they have chosen to continue to represent a harmful pan-Indian view of this country’s Indigenous people.
As with the Washington NFL team’s repeated attempts to justify the use of a slur and a caricature as a mascot, the extent to which a massive rebranding effort to right these wrongs is wholly dependent upon the bottom line. The billionaire owners of Native-themed sports franchises in this nation continue to feel unbothered by the fact that their teams are a direct product of the historicizing and erasure of modern Native people, because to feel bothered and to act on that feeling would cost them money.
If Helsley were just a random Cherokee Nation citizen phoning the Braves front office line—or an activist speaking with the press, or a journalist writing a column, or even the entirety of the National Congress of American Indians—it stands to reason that no statement would have been issued, and the fans would have been unimpeded in the continued use of the tomahawk chop.
I grew up a Braves fan, because they were the closest MLB team to my hometown in North Carolina, and because TBS carried all of their games when I was a kid. I have been to Turner Field and I have done the tomahawk chop. I even had a foam tomahawk in my childhood bedroom for an extended period of time.
As is the case with the R-word or Chief Wahoo, I grew to understand that the belief I used to justify the use of these practices as a kid—of believing that these twisted forms of representation were better than being wholly secluded to the history books and the hellish depictions popularized by Spaghetti Westerns—didn’t hold weight when pressed with even the lightest application of critical thought. Native people are not and have never been a singular blob with interchangeable cultural practices and societal structures. There are hundreds of tribal nations, each with their own histories and their specific beliefs and ways of life. What the existence of the Washington NFL team and the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves, and all their minor league and amateur offshoots, accomplish in their continued existence is antithetical to this fact. They exist not as a reminder to white people that we exist, but as a reminder that we existed, in the same vein as the Minnesota Vikings, the Pittsburgh Pirates, or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While flying back home this weekend after a trip to see family in Virginia, I spied at Reagan National Airport dozens of R-word shirts and memorabilia, two Kansas City Chiefs jerseys, and one Chief Wahoo hat. Last night, watching the Chiefs play the Indianapolis Colts during the Sunday night NFL showcase, the broadcast’s cameras and stadium mics picked up fans doing the chant and the chop at least a half-dozen times. To them, that is who we are: A decoration, an archaic people locked in the past. That is, until we’re not; until we’re standing on the field of play, looking at the scores of frothing smiles and swinging arms and callous chants, wondering who the hell this is all for. Then, all of a sudden, it’s time to look at different ways to “activate elements of our brand.”