Native American feds conflicted over White House honoring of the Braves
'It's disheartening,' said one Indigenous federal official, on high alert for the 'tomahawk chop' in President Biden's home.
WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials are doubling down in favor of calls for the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball franchise to have a conversation about changing its name and associated “tomahawk chop” rallying cry.
“We take the calls from Native Americans who are concerned with the team’s name and associated imagery very seriously,” an administration official tells Indigenous Wire in response to criticism of a recent White House event honoring of the Braves.
“We obviously can’t force the team’s owners to do anything, but we can shine a spotlight on the voices of Native Americans and their explanations for why this is an ongoing problem.”
Dozens of Native Americans currently serve in the Biden administration as political appointees — a point the White House often champions as illustrating its commitment to the federal trust responsibility to tribes. Many more career federal officials are American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian in the D.C. area alone.
Some of these officials say they were disappointed to see the White House host the Braves team and owners in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 26.
“We’ve got the first Native American Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland working everyday to root out derogatory names across the federal landscape, yet some White House leaders are celebrating the Atlanta team and apparently its tomahawk chop, too,” one Indian affairs-focused federal official told Indigenous Wire. “It’s disheartening.”
Indigenous administration officials were well-aware of the event honoring the Braves, which was reportedly arranged by Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Atlanta mayor and the current director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Some were on high alert looking for whether the tomahawk chop was performed by anyone attending the ceremony at the White House.
“It’s a racist chant,” another official said. “We were watching closely, but I didn’t see it happen.”
Two days after the event, Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post, noting her work on removing the racist, sexist word “squaw” from federal lands.
"Changing geographic names is a step my department was able to take — a significant step — in affirming the value of Indigenous women. Furthermore, it demonstrates my commitment to ensuring that our public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming,” Haaland wrote. “These should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage, not perpetuate legacies of oppression.”
President Joe Biden did not personally address the longtime controversy surrounding the Braves during his visit with the team at which he was presented with a Braves jersey with his name on it.
However, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did respond to a question about the issue during a press briefing held on the same day.
“We believe that it’s important to have this conversation, you know, and Native American and Indigenous voices, they should be at the center of this conversation,” Biden’s top spokesperson said.
“That is something that the president believes — that is something this administration believes — and he has consistently emphasized that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Jean-Pierre added. “You hear that often from this president. The same is true here. And we should listen to Native American and Indigenous people who are the most impacted by this.”
White House planners were said to be well aware of the potential for this issue to come up during Biden’s ceremony for the Braves, especially given that D.C. is a town home to the NFL team formerly known as the Redskins — a dictionary-defined racial slur.
They also know that when Biden served as veep under President Barack Obama in 2013 that Obama played a major role in furthering the discussion around getting the Redskins name changed when he personally expressed support for its removal.
Some Indigenous officials working in the federal government are hopeful that Biden himself takes a similar path on the Braves, but they also know that there are powerful politics in play for a White House that does not want to offend Georgian voters who may strongly support the team.
Earlier this year, after decades of protest from Native Americans regarding the Redskins name, the team changed it to the Washington Commanders.
Likewise, the MLB team formerly known as the Cleveland Indians earlier this year changed its name to the Guardians.
American Indian-themed team names and associated imagery and team chants have additionally been phased out of several colleges and high school sports in recent years.
The Braves, however, have stuck by a name and chant that many Indians have decried as racist.
Then in July, the team hosted its first-ever “Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase” for young Native American athletes.
The event was co-sponsored by the Native-owned, California-based 7G Foundation nonprofit after being asked by the Braves to take part.
The team’s spokespeople have said that the team does not stand for racism and that the team concurrently wants to spread goodwill to Native Americans.
But Suzan Harjo, a well-known Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee advocate who played a large role in getting Redskins removed, told Indigenous Wire in June that she viewed the Braves’ efforts with suspicion.
“This ‘ball camp’ for Native players sounds like a good deal for the players, but it also has the whiff of a turncoat operation, using players against Native advocates for an end of ‘Native” slurs and iconographic theft,” Harjo said.
The National Congress of American Indians and other major Native advocacy organizations have for decades called on the Braves to address racism related to its name and imagery and chants.
The National Indian Health Board in Nov. 2021 sent the following letter to Terry McGuirk, chairman of the Braves, as well as to Robert D. Manfred Jr., the commissioner of the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, attempting to explain the multi-fold reasons some Natives have problems with the team:
On behalf of the National Indian Health Board (NIHB) and on this first day of Native American Heritage Month, we write to express deep and troubling concerns about the Atlanta Braves and their usage of both a Native “derived” team name and the “Tomahawk Chop” fan cheer during their baseball games. The Atlanta Braves must acknowledge their role in perpetuating harmful behaviors and attitudes towards American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) people, change their name, and abandon their usage of Native inspired imagery. Our people are being hurt by these derogatory and harmful activities of the Atlanta Braves. The organization and Major League Baseball must take steps to mitigate that harm.
The “Tomahawk Chop” cheer, which has been utilized by the team’s fanbase since 1991, has routinely been denounced by organizations that represent AI/AN peoples. Further, the cheer and its associated imagery derive from the team’s usage of the name “Braves” and their appropriation of AI/AN cultural status and imagery, which we experience as insulting, demeaning, belittling and a breeding ground for further cheers or chants that trivialize our people and our cultures. These practices constitute erasure of true cultural and sacred practices. They trivialize and commodify cultural practices that have been under assault for centuries.
Native mascots, their associated imagery and cheers are destructive to AI/AN youth and contribute to negative thoughts and feelings our young people experience. In fact, a recent study, published in June 2020, affirms what we know experientially: Native mascots “in particular lower self esteem, lower community worth, less capacity to generate achievement-related possible selves, and greater levels of negative effect.” They also increase prejudices among the non-Native population. According to the same study, “these mascots activate, reflect, and/or reinforce stereotyping and prejudice among non-Native persons.” These concerns around mental health are longstanding. In 2004, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of Native mascots on the basis of their contribution to adverse mental health outcomes. Outdated mascots like the Braves and cheers like the “Tomahawk Chop” contribute to the dehumanizing of AI/AN peoples.
The Braves organization has a history of using its name as a launching point for demeaning imagery. From 1966-1985, the Braves utilized “Chief Noc-a-Homa” as their mascot, even having him “live” in a teepee in the outfield. In 1983, he was joined by “Princess Win-A-Lotta.” While both mascots are gone, the introduction of the “Tomahawk Chop” in 1991 and its continued popularity show the potency of a name as a launching point for demeaning imagery and mocking behaviors. The Braves influence even extends beyond the baseball diamond and into other sports. When the current Washington Football Team was created in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, they shared a stadium with the Braves and even used the name “Boston Braves,” mirroring their baseball counterparts. When the two teams ceased sharing a stadium, the football team kept the Native iconography and adopted the “R” word mascot that they held until they recently decided to change to be on the right side of history.
In addition to the damage the team’s name and chant behaviors currently perpetrate on American Indian and Alaska Native Peoples, the long history of the Braves baseball team being a seed for further offensive imagery, whether it be created by the team itself or created by others, creates a need to act swiftly to mitigate future damage. We call on the Braves to acknowledge their role in propagating harmful AI/AN stereotypes and imagery and change their name. As history has shown, eliminating the “Tomahawk Chop” will only result in something else taking its place within a matter of years. To prevent this outcome, the Braves must cut off the source and eliminate AI/AN imagery and names from its organization.
Recently, Major League Baseball has taken steps to right the wrongs of the past and mitigate the damage being done in the future. They have acknowledged that the policies of an earlier time, born out of ignorance and racism, have no place in contemporary society. Last year, the Commissioner of Baseball announced that the Negro Leagues would be retroactively acknowledged as Major Leagues, giving African American players who played before integration their rightful spot in the record books alongside their white counterparts. In July, the Cleveland Indians announced their name change to the Cleveland Guardians. There is still more work to be done, but the time is now. Major League Baseball and the Atlanta Braves organization must work together to chart a path forward that is respectful of AI/AN people and our cultures. We believe that a sport that prides itself on being the National Pastime should be inclusive of all Americans.
The NIHB has not received a response from the Braves to the letter to date.
Indigenous Wire is a Native-owned, reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.