Sports teams were silent on Indigenous People’s Day
Dr. Natalie Welch, Eastern Band Cherokee, and Christopher Buccafusco
This week the Atlanta Braves marked their triumphant return to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2001.
The roster is stacked with young talent, and the team is poised for another dynasty like the one that saw them win fourteen consecutive division titles starting in 1991. Also this week, another event passed without nearly as much fanfare from the Braves or any other professional sports team: Indigenous People’s Day.
The inaction makes the truth we already knew even more apparent: it’s time to embrace a new team name that every fan can be proud of.
After the Washington Football Team announced its decision to change its name—and a host of amateur teams across the country saw the writing on the wall and followed suit—professional sports teams scrambled to bolster their partnerships with local Native American communities.
Major league sports teams—and many of their fans—claim that references to Native American culture in names, logos, chants, and merchandise are a way to honor tribal communities.
On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a day set aside to do just that, on which teams like the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, and Cleveland Indians have historically been deafeningly silent, it is worth asking whether these names really do so.
Make no mistake: We celebrate these partnerships and believe that all professional sports teams should create outreach programs for their local Native American communities and athletes. But the use of Native mascots is not something that tribes or groups should be asked to sanction in the first place.
Like Halloween stores that stock up on Pochahontas costumes this time of year, teams like the Braves, Chiefs, Blackhawks, and Indians are “taking” or “stealing” Native culture and profiting off it.
The logical solution, it would seem, is to obtain permission from Native communities to continue using the name. But we think this doesn’t solve the problem for two reasons.
First, we think the principal problem with Native American mascots isn’t merely the failure to compensate or obtain permission for their use, but rather that their use is seriously harmful to Native and non-Native people alike.
A wealth of scientific research shows that Native American mascots and caricatures perpetuate damaging stereotypes about American Indians. They portray Indigenous peoples as warlike and aggressive and completely erase Native American women.
Mascots undermine the reality that Native Americans are a part of modern society and modern athletics. Rather than honor Native Americans (and we do not doubt their sincerity about this), the effect of these names is quite the opposite: They perpetuate centuries of prejudice against Native communities.
Native American tribes shouldn’t be asked to sanction the use of harmful mascots because our teams simply shouldn’t engage in harmful and discriminatory behavior, to begin with.
Second, even if teams should be able to seek permission to use harmful mascots, there is a serious difficulty with allowing them to make an agreement with a single tribe or group.
For example, Atlanta has worked with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, of which one of us is a member. The Eastern Band, a sovereign nation, has every right to choose to support the team. But the Eastern Band is only one of 573 federally recognized tribal nations.
They represent a small fraction of the more than 1 million enrolled members of federally recognized tribes (not to mention the unenrolled and unrecognized Indigenous peoples of what is now the United States). And while we’re thrilled that the Eastern Band can benefit from this partnership, the continued use of a harmful name will be felt by all Indigenous peoples.
There is, of course, a simple solution that avoids making single tribes or groups decide what is best for all Indigenous peoples: These teams could change their names. And then, once they change, they should continue to engage with their local Native communities, including seriously considering hiring them.
Don’t continue to treat them as people of the past. That’s what Indigenous People’s Day is all about: truly honoring Indigenous people while recognizing their modern accomplishments.
As longtime fans of Atlanta baseball, we treasure our memories of Sid Bream’s slide, Andruw’s homer, and the innumerable pitching gems from Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddux. But, for us at least, those memories aren’t entirely pure. We were chopping along with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda while Native Americans were protesting outside the stadium. We hope that as America’s Team embarks on a new baseball dynasty, it can do so with a name that all Americans can support.
As for the change, there are many appealing choices available, and Atlanta has had numerous different names in the past. The current Atlanta Braves, for example, were previously the Boston Red Stockings, Beaneaters, Doves, Rustlers, and Bees before they became the Boston Braves and then the Milwaukee Braves. The oldest continually operating Major League Baseball team can survive, and thrive, with a new name.
Dr. Natalie Welch is a Sport Management professor at Linfield University and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Christopher Buccafusco is a co-founder of Bravest ATL, a movement to change the name of the Atlanta Braves to one supporting and honoring firefighters.