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Joseph Martin
Special to Indian Country Today

Before the Atlanta Braves' home opener this summer at Truist Park, the team showed a video highlighting the region’s Cherokee culture.

It featured elements of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ landscape, language and traditions, along with comments from the tribe’s chief and multiple tribal citizens echoing the refrain, “We are still here.”

The video comes as sports teams across the country, including the Braves, have faced increased backlash over Native-themed mascots, imagery and fan behavior.

Leaders of the Atlanta Major League Baseball team have said they will not change the team’s name. But they have reached out to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the closest federally recognized tribe, to address cultural issues surrounding the operation, including the controversial “tomahawk chop.” 

Team leaders have been working with the tribe since last fall in hopes of finding a way to keep the word "Braves" while discarding the often disparaging, racist associations with it.

As part of these efforts, the franchise established a cultural advisory committee that includes two tribally appointed members. Its goals include gaining input from tribal citizens and sharing Eastern Cherokee culture with fans.

“The working group supports the name of the Braves. As it relates to the fan experience around the chop, they do not oppose it,” says Billy Kirkland, a Braves fan and former White House aide in the Trump administration. “However, the group is working closely with the Braves on this matter. We understand others have different opinions on these sensitive matters. That is why, as with the Braves, we want to listen to others and build common ground."

Kirkland, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is coordinating outreach for the team.

“We’re very grateful that seven to eight months ago, (Braves) President and CEO Derek Schiller reached out to me, wanting to strengthen that relationship,” Eastern Cherokee Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in an interview before the July 29 home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The North Carolina-based tribe has had a business relationship with the Braves since 2001, advertising its two casinos at Truist Park, 160 miles away.

Harrah's Cherokee casinos, owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, are sponsors for the Atlanta Braves. This shows the signage during the Braves game at home against the San Diego Padres May 1, 2019. (Photo by Adam Hagy for the Atlanta Braves)

According to Sneed, Schiller wanted to learn more about the Cherokee community and the tribe. “It’s been going really good. It’s been excellent,” Sneed said.

Opinions about the Braves’ use of Native imagery, the logo and fan actions during games vary among Eastern Band citizens. A high school in the band’s community is also named the “Braves” and uses Native imagery.

“What’s most important is that the team and the organization understands how important it is to be respectful of Native communities, and to understand our culture, and to want to build a relationship that is going to foster just an understanding, not only with the team and the organization, but with the Atlanta community as a whole,” Sneed said.

Yet there are those who say no amount of outreach will make a difference.

“We really can’t continue to say that we’re being preyed upon when we’re in business with these people,” said Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Suzan Shown Harjo, who for decades fought to change the name of Washington’s NFL team. “Instead of trying to gain more protective tolerations, the Atlanta team should just pony up and start changing everything.”

Harjo, Cheyenne, Hodulgee Muscogee, compared the issue of Native-themed mascots to gangrene, meaning you have to get rid of it all.

“Yes, it helps to get rid of a little racism, but you still have racism left.”

Fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to dismantle embedded cultural racism, many teams are abandoning Native-themed names and mascots and discouraging fan behavior that many consider disrespectful.

The Washington NFL team announced in July that it would drop its logo and R-word name following pressure from sponsors. The Cleveland Indians baseball team recently said it would talk to tribes as it considers a name change, and the Kansas City Chiefs have prohibited headdresses and other Native imagery at its home games.

Laura Blythe and Ashley Martin, citizens of the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians and members of the Braves advisory committee, are eager to work with the tribe and the team. The women were appointed by the band’s tribal council and Sneed.

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Blythe is program director with the Cherokee Historical Association; Martin is an audio-visual producer for the tribe’s communications division.

“We are open to hearing from anyone who wants to discuss pros, cons or otherwise. I do have my personal opinions on various matters concerning all of those things,” said Blythe, who was among those featured in the pregame video. “I don’t feel like mine is the only opinion that matters when making decisions in this appointed position”

She said she looks forward to representing the tribe and will “continue to listen to our community members to help make the best suggestions and decisions I can.”

“My goal is to use this platform as a way to educate the masses about us as Cherokee people,” Blythe said. “I feel the proper way to make changes is through education and discussion.”

Martin said she’s received feedback from several tribal citizens, including members of the Cherokee Speaker’s Council, which represents the tribe on matters of language, translations, tradition and culture.

She’s also heard from college students, “those who practice cultural beliefs, those who do not, and those who consider themselves just ordinary tribal members.”

Martin has opinions about what the Braves organization and its fans do, but said her commitment is to represent tribal members and express their concerns.

“I will not push my own agenda in any instance,” she said.

The team has told CNN the “chop” began when Deion Sanders joined the Braves in the early 1990s.

The chop remains a staple with the Florida State Seminoles, where Sanders played football and baseball. But Cherokee Nation member and St. Louis Cardinals Pitcher Ryan Helsley found the chop to be disrespectful.

After winning Game One of the National League Division Series in Atlanta last fall, Helsley told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general.”

Mary “Missy” Crowe, an Eastern Cherokee activist, has been critical of Native-themed sports mascots, including the Braves.

Crowe said her father took her to Braves games when she was younger, and at that time it was a part of assimilation and acculturation that Cherokee people were forced to accept. Even tribal citizens used to make rubber tomahawks to sell to fans, she said.

“We’re talking about money,” Crowe said. “A lot of us in the community, including me, didn’t appreciate that tomahawk chop.”

The Braves also have met with leaders of the National Congress of American Indians.

"The Atlanta Braves have been in active dialogue with NCAI, and have made it a priority to work with us in addressing existing concerns around Native-themed mascots and team names," CEO Kevin Allis said last month, according to the site Bleacher Report. "NCAI is grateful and very appreciative of this effort, and will continue to work with the team in finding meaningful and genuine solutions."

Kirkland, the advisory group consultant, said the goal is to create a fun and respectful fan experience.

He added he believes the Braves are motivated by a genuine desire to “get to know our community and work to showcase the great achievements of Native Americans.”

“I am excited and hopeful that this collaboration with the Atlanta Braves will lead to greater understanding and tribute to Native American culture and history,” Kirkland said.

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Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C., and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.