Indian Country Today
It was the sign seen ‘round the world.
Well, maybe not the world, but Indian Country and many sports fans sure took notice.
It was the bottom of the ninth inning in game 1 of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros in the latter’s home ballpark. As Astros player Aledmys Díaz hit a foul ball to deep left field and the camera panned with it, a sign appeared that has stoked the flames of a long running debate involving Native imagery and mascots in sports.
The sign simply read: “THE “CHOP” IS RACIST.”
The man holding the sign was Jim Squires, a Democrat running for Texas’ 22nd Congressional district. In an email to Indian Country Today, Squires said he actually took three signs into the ballpark and held one up that read, “YOUR UNIFORMS ARE RACIST” during the introductions of Atlanta players and staff.
“It took less than five minutes for someone from Astros security to come and take that sign from me,” Squires said via email.
Ultimately, Squires said he was kicked out of the game and he said it was the first time it had ever happened to him at a public event.
Now that we’re all caught up, we can discuss the issue at hand; why is the “tomahawk chop” still a thing? Moreover, does Atlanta see the irony in their actions?
Earlier this year, the organization joined the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s action for racial equity. A noble effort and cause but the irony was not lost on all.
Safe to say, the team was ripped on Twitter.
The movement against Native mascots and imagery in sports is not new, it’s been a fight for decades. What was started by Suzan Harjo and others is continued today by organizations like Illuminative, the National Congress of American Indians and Not Your Mascot. Although, Harjo remains active in the space to this day.
A statement from NCAI President Fawn Sharp, Quinault, called out MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred after he said that the” tomahawk chop'' is only a local issue.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Sharp said in the statement.
She continued, “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.”
An Associated Press story from earlier this week quotes Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as saying there are larger issues facing Native communities.
(Related: Braves bring chop to World Series)
"I'm not offended by somebody waving their arm at a sports game," Sneed told the AP on Tuesday. "I'm just not. If somebody is, that's their prerogative, it's their right. They can be offended. ... I don't know very many, maybe one or two, from my tribe who say, 'Yeah, I don't like that.' But at the end of the day, we've got bigger issues to deal with."
Yes, this is true, but can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time?
Few issues these days are black and white, you’re sure to find opinions across the spectrum. Yet, for Manfred to say it is a local issue, only applicable to Atlanta and the region, is asinine.
Games 3, 4 and 5 are set to take place in Atlanta over the weekend, putting the onus on Fox whether or not to highlight the crowd when the “tomahawk chop” inevitably occurs. While the station should not show the fans, I doubt they turn down the audio of the crowd doing the chant.
Again, this issue is not new. In 2019, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, Cherokee, relayed his disappointment to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, calling the “tomahawk chop” disrespectful.
“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said at the time. “Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual. They are a lot more than that. It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s not. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots.”
What many people don’t seem to know is, the Braves fans didn’t start doing the tomahawk chop until 1991 when Deion Sanders started playing for the team. Sanders played college football at Florida State University, which does the “tomahawk chop” and has a close relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the tribe’s approval to use its name, logo and other images.
As I said from a previous column at the time, “This should be an example of the proper way to go about consulting and working with tribes to use their likeness. Unfortunately, it’s not.”
Furthermore, there are studies that show how these actions and Native mascots affect Native youth and people.
What’s scary is that with game 5 falling on Halloween, you can bet there will be more than one fan dressed up in a Native costume, doing the “tomahawk chop” till they are “red” in the face.
Atlanta removed a sign from the ballpark that read “Chop On” and stopped selling foam tomahawks. Yet, they still have a huge neon sign that has a tomahawk doing the motion at the same time.
A half-hearted gesture at best, the team just needs to get rid of it all.
There was even a petition to get the team to change the name to the “Hammers,” to honor the great Hank Aaron.
One can hope it’s only a matter of time.
From every level, elementary schools to the pros, many racist team names and mascots have changed over the years. With time, fans have forgotten and even become embarrassed they took part in such actions in the first place.
Indian Country will continue this fight and we need allies like Jim Squires who said he made the signs in hopes of keeping the issue on the forefront of conversations and action.
“The bottom line is that no matter who says it isn’t racist, it just is, and it needs to stop,” he said. “So, I figured if there was an opportunity for me to contribute, I’d try.”
The Washington R-words fell and the Cleveland Indians are now the Guardians. Now it’s time to #StopTheChop.
Correction: The article has been updated to reflect the Astros player that hit the foul in ball in the 9th inning as Aledmys Díaz
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