America's Pastime

Oct 12 2019

This week baseball’s postseason playoffs were proceeding uneventfully when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley threw the Atlanta Braves a curve ball. In between games one and two of the Cardinals–Braves series, Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized a controversial Braves fan ritual: rhythmically simulating a tomahawk chop while humming something that is either a Native American war song or Atlanta’s idea of one.    

Braves officials took the complaint seriously. When the decisive game five rolled around, Atlanta fans didn’t find in their seats the complimentary foam tomahawks that had always been there for playoff games. And the loudspeaker didn’t, shortly before the first pitch, prompt the tomahawk ritual by playing the war song. 

If you were a superstitious Braves fan, you might have worried that this desecration of ritual would anger the gods. And sure enough: St. Louis scored ten runs in the top of the first inning—which, for those of you aren’t baseball fans, meant that the game was over before the other 8.5 innings were played. (Final score: 13-1. The Cardinals moved on to the National League Championship series, and the Braves went home.)

Before I say more about the tomahawk ritual per se, I’d like to say one thing about the recurring controversy over Native American sports names (which typically focuses on the Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs). Namely: these four names fall into two groups, and one group seems more offensive than the other.

“Redskins” and “Indians” are labels for an ethnic group—which, let’s face it, is pretty weird. I mean, you wouldn’t name a team the Cleveland Latinos or the Washington African-Americans (much less something as unambiguously pejorative as “Redskins”). 

The only analogue I can think of is the Boston Celtics—and history affords Irish Americans much less grounds for taking offense than it affords Native Americans. Sure, Irish Americans were once victims of real discrimination, but they weren’t subjected to more than a century’s worth of ethnic cleansing and wanton slaughter and then confined to tracts of land specifically chosen for their barrenness. So if I owned the Cleveland Indians—and especially if I owned the Washington Redskins (whose name is less comparable to “Boston Celtics” than to “Boston Micks”)—I’d be looking for a way to gracefully change the name. 

After all, there’s precedent for changing a professional team’s name in response to changing times. In 1997, NBA owner Abe Pollin, worried about urban gun violence, rechristened the Washington Bullets as the Washington Wizards. And there were no ill effects; his team had been mediocre as the Bullets and it was mediocre as the Wizards.

In contrast to “Indians” and “Redskins,” both “Braves” and “Chiefs” refer not to an ethnic group but to a particular occupational status within an ethnic group—warriors and military/political leaders, respectively. And here analogues are abundant: the many professional sports teams (New York, New Jersey, Washington) that have been named “Generals,” not to mention the Kentucky Colonels. And the Washington Senators. Most of these teams aren’t still around, but if they were, nobody would bat an eye.

I’m not Native American, so it’s not my call to make. But it seems to me that terms like “Braves” and “Chiefs” could be taken as not offensive, perhaps even ennobling—at least, if they’re not accompanied by, say, a gratuitous tomahawk ritual.  

All of this may seem a bit more Jesuitical than is warranted by the context. After all, they’re just a bunch of sports teams—what’s so hard about changing all their names and being done with it? And I’m not against that. At the same time, I recognize that these days lots of Americans get really upset by the abandonment of tradition in the face of what they see as political correctness. And since some of these Americans vent their anger by doing things like vote for Donald Trump, I’m eager to find compromises that leave them, say, half as outraged as they otherwise would be.

And, for the same reason, I’m a fan of incremental progress. You know, like: Lose the tomahawks now, drop the war chant in a couple of years, and eventually get around to changing the name. (Only last year the Cleveland Indians removed the cartoonish image of “Chief Wahoo” from their uniforms and stadium signs but not from all merchandise; I expect the merchandise to follow suit before long.) And I guess one thing I’m saying is that, if you want to take an incremental approach to changing names, I’d go in this order: Redskins, then Indians, with Braves and Chiefs tied for third.  

So that’s my two cents. If you want to denounce me for looking at this as a typical white male, or for anything else, please email us at (or just click “reply” on this email).

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