At the All-Star break in mid-July 2021, the Atlanta Braves had a 0.3% chance of reaching the World Series. On Nov. 2, they won and became World Champions.
Baseball fans around the nation embraced the Braves during their championship run. For some, it was purely out of disdain for their opponent, the Houston Astros, with the cheating scandal of 2017 still fresh in their minds. Others were drawn to the personalities of fan-favorite players like Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson, or enjoying Atlanta’s underdog status.
Atlanta earned the nickname “America’s Team” when they began their playoff journey, and the title was quite fitting. A betting website’s research found that only three U.S. states — Texas, Louisiana and, inexplicably, Delaware — predominantly rooted for the Astros in the World Series, while the other 47 pulled for the Braves.
The Braves captured the nation’s hearts during the first season with full capacity seating since the start of COVID-19, but the packed stadiums brought with them an uncomfortable reminder: the Braves organization and Major League Baseball (MLB) still permit, and even encourage, fans to do the tomahawk chop at their games.
Atlanta fans began doing the tomahawk chop in 1991, and it has become a staple of fan engagement at Braves games since. Visitors at Truist Park can expect a sea of tens of thousands of fans chanting in unison while doing “The Chop” — a cheer where fans move their arm (or a red foam tomahawk) forwards and backwards, simulating a Native tomahawk chopping.
With an ongoing movement in professional sports to part ways with racist portrayals of Native Americans, it is time for the Braves to rebrand and cut all ties to the tomahawk. The spotlight of the World Series has brought this conversation to a national stage, and Native American leaders are calling for change.
There has already been significant progress across U.S. professional sports in moving away from Native American names, mascots and logos, particularly within the last few years. The Washington Football Team dropped the name “Redskins” and the logo of a Native American head in 2020 after sporting it for 87 years, and the former Cleveland Indians of MLB are now known as the Guardians, having dropped the offensive Chief Wahoo logo in 2019.
While important steps have been made, there is still work to do to eliminate racist Native American portrayals in sports — and the next step is to rebrand the Atlanta Braves.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred does not see an issue with the tomahawk chop, claiming that the Atlanta-area Native American population “is wholly supportive of the Braves program, including the chop. For me, that's the end of the story."
Even if there was collective support for the tomahawk chop among all Native American groups with ties to that area — which, according to a spokesperson for the Muscogee Nation, is not the case — the Braves organization is not confined to just Atlanta. Winning the World Series has brought the team to a national stage, thus bringing their traditions under national scrutiny.
“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,” said Fawn Sharp, the president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), in a statement issued on Oct. 27.
NCAI consists of hundreds of Tribal Nations from across the country, and for over 75 years they have been fiercely opposed to mascots and rituals that use Native American imagery.
“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,” said Sharp.
Even MLB players have called out the tomahawk chop for being offensive to Native Americans. Ryan Helsey, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who is part of the Cherokee Nation, spoke about how the chop was “disrespectful” and made Native Americans seem like “caveman-type people” during the 2019 NLDS.
The Braves promised to evaluate the issue after the season, but two years later the tomahawk chop is still going strong at every game.
Fans have an emotional tie to the ritual, and MLB clearly has a vested interest in allowing it to continue. However, the World Series spotlight has made the chop a point of national conversation. No longer is it confined to Truist Park; major networks showed fans doing the tomahawk chop during nationally broadcasted playoff games this season, bringing the ritual to TV screens across the country.
The tomahawk chop needs to go — and with no real way to enforce a ban on it, the Braves should follow in the footsteps of the Cleveland Guardians and rebrand the organization. They have the opportunity to put themselves on the right side of history in a moment where professional sports teams are distancing themselves from Native American imagery.
The Braves had a number of memorable moments from their postseason run, but the tomahawk chop will be the lasting story from their World Series victory.