Suzan Shown Harjo battles the Braves
On her 77th birthday, Native advocate takes aim at another major league franchise.
WASHINGTON — Suzan Shown Harjo, the well-known Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee advocate — who played an outsized role in getting the Washington NFL football team to ultimately change its name — is weighing in on a new effort by the Atlanta Braves MLB team to get young Native Americans involved in their club.
The Braves, long known for their fan-led tomahawk-chop cheer and questionaable Native imagery, announced last week that they were joining forces with the Native-owned 7G Foundation to host a “Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase” at the team’s Truist Park in July.
Around 50 young Indian athletes are currently being recruited for the program.
Bennae Calac, a Native businesswoman who has been involved in Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians tribal politics, is helping make it all a reality.
Money is said to be flowing freely. (The Braves have not responded to a request for comment, but we will update if they do.)
But Harjo, wise and celebrating birthday number 77 today, warns people not to be fooled.
“Of all the pro sports teams with bigoted and appropriated ‘Indian’ identities, the Atlanta baseball franchise has been the nastiest of all to actual Native people who have requested that they give up their toys of racism,” Harjo tells Indigenous Wire. “Yes, even nastier than the Washington NFL franchise.”
Harjo, who was awarded with a President Medal of Freedom in 2014, knows a thing or two about battling racist team franchises. When it came to the former “Redskins,” she did so for decades — in court, in federal hearings, in the press. She never let up, through sickness and in health and when threatened by fans.
Throughout, the Braves loomed large on her radar.
When TV magnate Ted Turner owned both the baseball team and CNN in the 1980s and 1990s, he banned her and other Indigenous advocates from being interviewed, according to various producers and reporters who told her.
Turner’s ball business made her sick, and she wanted to speak out about it — to him, to his then-wife Jane Fonda, and to others involved with the first “cable news network.”
That the team is Atlanta-based is especially noteworthy to the former congressional liaison for Indian affairs in the Carter administration.
“Dealing with the baseball business that spawned the ‘tomahawk chop’ — sending dual deadly messages of Indian savagery and of non-Indians chop, chop, chopping Native scalps and heads — was not at all like our work with the Atlanta of John Lewis or the Georgia of Jimmy Carter,” Harjo said.
“No, it was much more akin to the White supremacy strain of Georgians who teamed up with Andrew Jackson to ethnically cleanse the Southeast and forcibly remove Native peoples beyond the western boundary, confiscating Native lands, waters and homes.”
Regarding the 7G Foundation’s involvement with the Braves’ current plans, Harjo commented: “Removal was carried out by employing scouts from other nations, then turning on their allies and marching them to Indian Territory, too.”
“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,” she said.
Harjo added that she and other advocates she’s been aligned with since the 1960s have tried not to put players on the spot in making changes in sports because players have a lot riding on the game itself and are already being used by their owners or leaseholders against other people of color or, in this case, their very own Native peoples.
“The Atlanta owners will hint that Native players might want to say they’re fine with stereotypes and slurs, and they’ll be cautioned against making statements against the team’s imagery, name, symbols or the chop,” Harjo surmised of the current situation.
After all, she’s seen this kind of dark game play out before. Yet she chooses to be hopeful for a rainbow.
“I hope that Atlanta’s opportunity is as honest and clean as its description and that Native players are able to take advantage of it without being pawns the the ball club’s game,” Harjo said.
Indigenous Wire is a Native-owned, reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.