Indigenous Peoples Day fell on Monday, October 12 this year. When the holiday was initially created 30 years ago in South Dakota, the goal was to — in some small way — recognize the tragedies perpetrated by European settlers (like Columbus, whose day it is intended to replace) on America’s indigenous people.
The Atlanta Braves elected to celebrate by winning their first neutral-site NLCS game — the first MLB game of the season to host fans, and thus the first Braves game to host their irrevocably racist Tomahawk Chop cheer. The Chop, as it is familiarly known, was created in the 1980s by fans of the Florida State University Seminoles and soon after adopted by teams at the high school, college and professional level nationwide. Teams that shared a trait that so many, like the Braves, still cling to: names and mascots that caricature Native people and culture.
“My brother was just asking himself, ‘Am I really going to teach my children to do the Tomahawk Chop?’” says Chris Buccafusco. He and his brother Marty are founders of Bravest ATL, a fan club dedicated to trying to get the Braves to change their name to the Bravest — celebrating firefighters and EMTs instead of “honoring” Native people. The name is close enough to “Braves” that the group has even been able to mock up a new logo, one where the same colors are used to depict a firefighter’s axe instead of a tomahawk.
It’s a generous response to a long-debated issue. Decades of protests and even a 2005 resolution from the American Psychological Association argue a point that would seem to be self-evident in 2020: Knowing what we do about the genocide settlers perpetrated on stolen land, the ways Native people have been systemically oppressed since then, the faceless, imagined people emulated by the Chop and fans rooting for Braves and Indians as under-resourced reservation communities languish nearby — just change the name. It’s that simple.
“People treat them like these precious little things, but team names have changed so many times in history,” Buccafusco says. “And we get over it so quickly. I’m hopeful that we can do the same here, and get to a place where everyone can be supportive of the team again.”
Chris and Marty are lifelong fans of Atlanta’s MLB team, hence the positive spin on their campaign. They want to keep rooting for the team, just in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they’re harming people. “Over the course of the last decade or so, we have become increasingly uncomfortable with rooting for the team,” Buccafusco continues. “We’ve felt more and more marginalized from getting to participate in full fandom. It’s time for the team to find a new mascot, one that we can be proud of as the team embarks on another terrific run of success.”
They’re not alone, especially when one considered the sheer number of teams at every level with Indigenous names. Three other teams in the four biggest pro leagues — the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks — use Native names and in the case of the Blackhawks, imagery; five universities skirted a 2005 NCAA mandate banning Native names and imagery from championship proceedings by proving that they were supported by local tribes; and according to Five Thirty Eight, 1,232 high schools across the country still have names either caricaturing or slurring Indigenous people. The Washington Football Team, of course, finally got rid of its deeply offensive team name this summer after sponsors threatened to pull funding as protests of systemic racism flooded America’s streets.
Yet that shift is indicative of a larger, more frightening one. As changing Native team names and logos has become a symbol of an increasingly mainstream shift towards performing inclusiveness (compelled in large part by some of those same protests), defending those names and logos has taken on disproportionate political weight. Veiled cries for “tradition” and “history” ring eerily closely to the unchanging rationalization of Confederate memorabilia and iconography in all 50 states.
In Killingly, Connecticut, for example, the school board voted to change the Killingly High School mascot from the Redmen to the Redhawks last October. Local voters, apparently inspired by the change, promptly voted in new Republican representatives on the town council and school board who almost instantly reversed the decision. The Redmen play on, buoyed by a common argument: there are Native people who don’t take issue with its name, or any Indigenous team name.
“We, as Indigenous people, I think, don’t realize the harm of these things sometimes ourselves,” says Dr. Natalie Welch, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who studies Native Americans in sports. Her tribe has been working with the Braves, and some members appeared in a video that the team played at its home opener. “I lost sleep,” she says of the relationship, which she questioned to tribal leadership. “I felt so torn, because I don’t want to betray my tribe. But at the same time, I don’t want to betray our society.”
That inspired her to join the Bravest ATL cause — one part of a long overdue change that should be way more straightforward than it’s been so far. “It’s just like, let’s wake up a little bit and realize that we can still educate people about Native culture without having the mascot,” Welch says. “Every team has a Native community in their area, so [changing the name] shouldn’t stop them from doing that outreach at all.”
“You’re never going to get rid of the old stuff,” Welch concludes. “But I don’t think we want to erase the history — we just want them to be on the right side of history, so people can look back and say, ‘Hey, the Braves actually stepped up and changed.’”