Editor’s note: With the use of the “Tomahawk Chop”, a popular chant among Atlanta Braves fans, once again a hot button issue in Major League Baseball, I have asked two long-time online opinion columnists, Nathan Eckert and Bob Sheffer, to contribute their takes on the matter.–JF
I am a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves. I was born and raised in Sandy Springs, Georgia, and my love for the team runs in the family–my parents were actually in attendance, two years before my birth, to see Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. I grew up worshipping Dale Murphy and spent my teenage through young adult years enamored with the dynastic teams of the Bobby Cox era.
My fandom has always been less about the players on the Braves themselves and more about the associations of the Braves with my hometown. I root for the same team as my parents and as my childhood friends. My daughter roots for the Braves today because she wanted to share this bond with me. I thank God every day for this baseball team. And as such, I hope the Braves defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS on their way to the team’s second World Series title in Atlanta. But there is one part of the Braves that I deeply depise–the Tomahawk Chop.
The Tomahawk Chop was adopted by the Braves when I was in high school, inherited from the Florida State Seminoles, and when I attended my first postseason game, Game 3 of the 1993 NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies, I participated in “the chop”. I didn’t think much of it–it was what the crowd was doing, and I wanted to feel like I was a part of the Braves family. If you had asked me in the moment if I harbored any racist feelings towards Native Americans, I could have passed a polygraph answering “no”, and I am certain the same would apply for most who attended that game. I wasn’t thinking about the politics of the situation–I was thinking about being part of the extended family of Atlanta Braves fandom. There is tremendous value to crowd chants–even if they don’t have any tangible benefit on the on-field results, they contribute to the communal aspects that make attending live sporting events great.
But as it turns out, my fandom of the Atlanta Braves has nothing to do with some chant. It has nothing to do with dressing up in traditionally Native American dress nor reducing a group of people so frequently a victim of appalling American racism to a basic stereotype. In the early years of the Tomahawk Chop as an Atlanta tradition, it was immediately criticized by Native American organizations, but I ignored it. I took the criticism as attempted character assassination, but over the years, I recognized that support of Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. had nothing to do with support for such an offensive chant. Why give fodder to Phillies or Mets (or, for the next few days, Cardinals) fans?
The Tomahawk Chop largely goes unnoticed throughout most of the season, emerging from regional obscurity to regional shame upon nationally-televised Atlanta playoff appearances (the irony that this miserable sideshow of a story emerges only during the happiest part of the season has not been lost on me). It became a particularly notable story when, on Thursday, many (not all, but many) fans at SunTrust Park did the Tomahawk Chop upon the arrival of Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Were Braves fans taunting his ethnic heritage? Of course we were not. But that’s the point–when we dabble in these practices, it was always inevitable that those who might be the most personally offended by the actions would be caught in the crossfire.
After Helsley was asked about the Tomahawk Chop on Friday, he commented on his distate for it, and was promptly excoriated as weak or soft or somehow unworthy of basic respect (some tweets that Helsley had made in high school using homophobic and ableist language were unearthed as evidence, somehow, that he did not deserve basic respect). As a person who wishes the Chop would go away, this is a perfect distillation of my objections to it. Ryan Helsley, or any other Native American, does not need to somehow “earn” a lack of racism directed towards him. One does not need to qualify for it.
I dream of a day when the Tomahawk Chop is no longer considered a righteous cause for large segments of Braves fans and that we can unite behind a city, a region, a team, a collective appetite for baseball…anything but that awful chant. Go Braves.
The Tomahawk Chop isn’t racist. It isn’t.
People like to say it’s racist, but it’s not. People like to say it is, but nobody thinks it is. I have a lot of Native American friends who think it’s fine. I’m part-Choctaw, myself, and I don’t find it offensive. There’s nothing wrong with it.
If you don’t like the Tomahawk Chop, that’s your problem. It’s understandable why visiting teams don’t like it–it creates a hostile environment for opponents. But that doesn’t mean the Braves should get rid of it. It just means they have a home field advantage. If the Cardinals want that home field advantage, they can do their own chant instead of getting all butthurt about ours.
If the Tomahawk Chop is racist, how come people haven’t complained about it until now? Funny how that works out. I didn’t see anyone complaining about the Tomahawk Chop in 2015. But now it’s a big deal? It’s not.
Life’s tough. Wear a helmet.