Everyone grows up with unique traditions, but what makes a tradition?
Merriam-Webster defines it as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom).”
Traditions are something we sports fans hold near and dear to our hearts and, my goodness, there are a lot of them out there. From the winner of the Indianapolis 500 drinking milk to hockey fans throwing hats onto the rink when a player scores three goals to the Masters golf tournament being played the first full week of April each year. (The tournament’s motto is quite literally, “A tradition unlike any other.”)
I personally have made it a tradition to see at least one NBA game a year.
These are just a few of the many traditions that aren’t likely to be going anywhere in the near future, nor should they. They’re harmless. But what do we do when a “tradition” crosses the line and becomes offensive?
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the controversy which occurred last week that enveloped the end of the National League Division Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves.
If not, the short story is Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, citizen of the Cherokee Nation, let his feelings be known on the tomahawk chop — a chopping motion Braves fans make with their arms — when he spoke to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said Friday afternoon at SunTrust Park. “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. The Redskins and stuff like that.
“That’s the disappointing part,” he continued in a conversation with The Post-Dispatch. “That stuff like this still goes on. It’s just disrespectful, I think.”
The Braves organization released a statement that was half-hearted at best, saying they would not play or use “accompanying music or Chop-related graphics while Mr. Helsley is in the game.”
The key phrase in the entire thing is “while Mr. Helsley is in the game.”
Helsley is a relief pitcher who up until that point in the series had not been in the game for more than two innings. So you’re telling me, while he’s in the dugout or the bullpen, the tomahawk chop doesn’t affect him?
It’s also funny to me that when non-Native fans are asked why they should be allowed to continue doing the tomahawk chop or why the Washington racial slurs should keep their name; they can’t come up with a compelling argument beyond “it’s not intended to offend anyone, it’s done out of respect for Native Americans.”
There’s also “it celebrates Native American culture.” And the new favorite, “people are overly sensitive these days.”
Good intentions or not, it’s how it is received that matters. As recently as this week, tribal leaders have come out and said that the tomahawk chop is “insensitive and inappropriate.”
Yet, I’d bet the house, Braves fans will be choppin’ it up come next season’s home opener.
What’s also funny to me is that Braves fans didn’t start doing the tomahawk chop until 1991, 25 years after the team moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee. Essentially because Deion Sanders followers starting doing the chop, it caught on with the larger fanbase and there was money to be made by a foam-rubber sales manager.
Sanders played college football at Florida State University whose fans also do the tomahawk chop and the school has a close relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The tribe even has a declaration of support for the university, allowing the use of their name, logo and other images.
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.
Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre, both men of color who co-host a television show on ESPN, had a conversation on this topic that I believe is worth watching. Both made good points but Jones said the following that resonated with me.
“It’s because they only really care how this makes the white people who watch these games feel. That’s it and guess what? They’re not bothered en masse because it ain’t about them,” Jones said on High Noon.
Sadly, until these teams and owners start losing money, nothing is going to change. They can say they will continue to have an open dialogue with Native communities but it’s apparent they are not as things like this continue to happen.
I didn’t even get into the studies on how these actions and Native mascots affect Native youth and people. Or the efforts underway by Native organizations that are combating these racist stereotypes in sports. That’s an entire conversation in its own right.
At the end of the day, Indigenous people aren’t asking for the world, we’re just asking for a little respect.
Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org