On this past Sunday evening, a change that has been percolating for a few years now finally came to fruition: The Cleveland Indians will be getting rid of their nickname. According to the New York Times, the change won’t be immediate and there’s no word yet on what he new nickname will be. The only certainty is that once the 2022 season rolls around, Cleveland’s baseball team will be taking to the field with a new nickname for the first time since the 1915 season, when they ditched the “Naps” nickname in favor of their current one.
Cleveland’s visual identity has been a point of contention for decades now. Personally, the first time that I remember it being a really big deal was back in 1995 when Cleveland took on our Atlanta Braves in that year’s World Series. Of course, I was just a kid back then and I was far too young to actually take in what was going on. I was seven-years-old and it was the World daggone Series. I was especially too young to realize that the Braves were also the focus of protests during the 1991 World Series. I wasn’t even alive for the day when the Braves and Levi Walker mutually decided to part ways ahead of the 1986 season — not due to objections from Native Americans, but due to a pay dispute.
The loudest objections came from activist Russell Means, who actually sued Cleveland for $9 million in damages back in 1972. The lawsuit made headlines and Means also had some shots to send towards Chief Noc-A-Homa. He didn’t mince words about the former Braves mascot:
“It is outrageous, I feel, to have a man dressed as an Indian, sitting in an alleged tepee outside the outfield fence, doing a silly dance every time some player hits a home run...would they hire a black man to sit in a tar paper shack out there and come out picking cotton every time a player hit a home run? No, they wouldn’t dare.”
He’s right about that last part, because I would personally show up to Truist Park with a guitar in hand, in order to pull a Jeff Jarrett on everybody involved in making that latter part happen if they ever dared. So it’s definitely understandable on a personal level that Means was pretty angry about the former Braves mascot. Means’s 1972 comments appear to be the earliest reported example of Native Americans publicly criticizing the mascot. Even despite the fact that Levi Walker himself was a Native American, Means made a comment about Walker’s Chippewa heritage that The Associated Press quipped that Means’s comment “might not sit too well with Central Michigan University.”
I’d imagine that if Russell Means was still alive in 2019, then he probably would’ve approved of Cherokee Nation member Ryan Helsley speaking out against the Tomahawk Chop during the 2019 NLDS. While it would’ve been easy (and ridiculous) to just dismiss his sentiments as a guy on one team taking a verbal jab at his opponent during a heated Postseason series, it’s worth taking a second to really digest what Helsley told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and compare it to the comments that Means was making back in 1972 about the former Braves mascot:
“I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” Helsley said Friday 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 main point that I’m trying to get to by walking down memory lane here is that the Braves have publicly had Native Americans objecting to their nicknames, logos, and traditions for nearly fifty years. This isn’t something that’s just popping up recently due to “cancel culture” or “political correctness” or whatever other buzzword or phrase is currently en vogue at the moment. This has been roiling for a long time now, and I’ve barely touched on the ongoing controversy surrounding Cleveland that resulted in them eventually getting rid of both Chief Wahoo and their nickname.
The Braves have at least partially helped their reputation in that regard over the years. They stopped using the laughing Native American logo during the mid-1980s — only to stir up controversy when they tried to resurrect the logo by putting it on a batting practice cap ahead of the 2013 season. They had enough sense to put out a replacement hat in time for spring training, which should’ve been the first hat to begin with.
Then there was the aforementioned retirement of Chief Noc-A-Homa. The mascot had a brief retirement in 1982 when the Braves were hot and Ted Turner saw dollar signs in the form of ticket sales. Subsequently, Turner got rid of the mascot and the teepee in order to free up the seats that were occupied by the mascot’s obtrusive space. The Braves then went on a horrid spell and in typical baseball fashion, superstition won out and the Braves ended up winning the division that year after the teepee returned. So just like four years later when the team permanently parted ways with the mascot, the 1982 split was mostly done with financial motivations in mind.
So while moving away from the old primary logo and mascot was helpful, the Braves eventually drew the ire of Native Americans again when the Tomahawk Chop became popular with the fans. Again, part of the reason why it’s lasted so long is due to baseball superstition kicking in. I’d imagine that when most Braves fans think of the team’s period of divisional dominance from 1991 until 2005, the chop-and-chant is an accompanying soundtrack to those memories. It’s something that a lot of us Braves fans associate with some really, really good times and it’s understandable if it’s hard to grapple with the fact the same good memory is simultaneously a point of scorn and derision for a lot of Native Americans. Shoot, just look at the name of this website!
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution article from July of this year has really stuck with me, as it’s probably the most nuanced piece that I’ve read when it comes to centering how Native Americans themselves feel about the Braves and how they go about utilizing Native American imagery. This anecdote in particular concerning a Native American who is also a Braves fan is what stayed with me in my head:
[Bo] Taylor, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a former archivist and director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, has always been a Braves fan and grew up watching Dale Murphy. Back in the days of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Taylor and the youngsters were enjoying the game, until another group of fans sat near them and started cheering and making a sound effect by patting hand to mouth.
“About the third inning, these guys showed up,” Taylor said. “They were wearing these fake feathers. They had the war paint on. They were drunk. They started doing the (sound effect). These young kids that were so excited, Indian kids, these were all Indian kids, I should say. All these Indian kids were so excited but when they saw that, and saw how they were portrayed, as more of a caricature, they kind of lost themselves. You could see they were somewhat ashamed of who they were. That’s what I have a problem with.”
Once again, it’s something where it’s very easy to put myself in their shoes as a Black person. If I saw a group of fans acting out whatever they feel is behavior that is stereotypical for Black people, I’d really be feeling some type of way. It’s absolutely understandable that those kids probably saw them doing the chant and suddenly went from having a good time at the ol’ ballgame to feeling really resentful in that moment. Just based on that story alone, if the Tomahawk Chop is doing something negative for Native American baseball fans to the point where it hinders their enjoyment of the game that we all love, then the Braves would be better off doing their Native American fans a solid by discontinuing the Tomahawk Chop. This may not be a popular thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.
Getting rid of the chop and other tomahawk-related imagery would also help give the Braves’ current efforts of reaching out to the Native American community a bit more credence. One of the more interesting moments in this past season was when Hank Aaron and Andrew Young showed up to the home opener and ended up taking a picture with and meeting the Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Richard Sneed.
Before tonight’s game, @HenryLouisAaron, Ambassador Andrew Young and Braves executives welcomed Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to @TruistPark.— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) July 29, 2020
The names on the back of the jerseys are written in Syllabary, the language of the Cherokees. pic.twitter.com/HycRmwArGz
Additionally, the organization has also helped form a “Native American Working Group.” The members of that group can be found on the team’s Native American Community webpage, which I’m almost certain didn’t exist until recently. It does appear that the Braves are actually attempting to build an actual relationship with the Native Americans who they claim they are honoring with their nickname and imagery, which is something I couldn’t say that they were doing for certain before the summer of 2020. While it’s definitely positive to see the organization attempting to reach out, it’s also clear that the Braves still have plenty of work to do when it comes to actually honoring Native American culture. Going back to the AJC article from before, it was real interesting to see what Bo Taylor (and everyone else who was interviewed in that article, but Taylor in particular) had to say about the chop:
But the tomahawk chop cheer, Taylor said, is not a historic war cry, and he thinks there must be a better cheer out there for Braves fans to use.
“The nah, nah, nah-nah nah nah, that’s ridiculous,” Taylor said. “That has no meaning to us. ... As for the chop and all this other stuff, I think they could probably do a better job. I’m more mediocre on that. I think they could find a better way to rally the Braves than the tomahawk chop.”
So while Taylor doesn’t speak for all Native Americans on the issue and their opinion appears to be pretty varied and it depends on who you ask, he’s absolutely correct when he says that the fans can do better than the chop. If there was ever a time for the team to officially leave the chop behind, then now’s the time. It wasn’t played over the speakers at all during this past season — that may have been due to the lack of fans in the stadium due to the pandemic, but maybe this was also a moment of clarity for the franchise that the team doesn’t particularly need to hear the tomahawk chop in the middle of a 2-1 count while down 4-2 in the sixth inning of a game in the middle of June. It also would’ve reflected pretty badly on Major League Baseball in general if one of their teams started playing that chant in their ballpark in the wake of the racial justice movement that had been going on throughout the Summer. Either way, it was good that we didn’t hear it last season and it would be better if we didn’t hear it going forward.
As far as the team’s nickname and uniforms are concerned, I’d say that the Braves probably aren’t going to change those anytime soon. With that being said, I wouldn’t be shocked if a change does happen and I believe that the most likely change would be the team eliminating the tomahawk from their identity. The eagle-eyed among you would notice that in the Tweet that I linked above where Hank Aaron and Chief Richard Sneed are showing off their special Syllabary jerseys, those were not the home white jerseys. Instead, those were the Sunday alternates, which don’t prominently feature the tomahawk across the front of the jersey. Additionally, most of those goofy league-wide alternate uniforms that MLB loves to force on teams for special events are also usually missing the tomahawk when it comes to Atlanta’s uniforms.
If the Braves do end up keeping their nickname but drop the tomahawk, then the solution would be a quick and easy one: The “A” hat logo should become the new primary logo, and the team would just move on with new uniforms that didn’t feature the tomahawk on them. This could include simply removing the sleeve patch from the current Sunday alternates and promoting those uniforms to primary status, or they could look to their historical uniform catalog and update one of their historical uniforms. Personally, I’d love for them to modernize their 1980s uniforms and use those as a base for a new look. Your mileage may vary on that idea.
However, if the Braves decide to follow in the footsteps of the Cleveland baseball team and the Washington Football Team and they decide to go with a new identity, that would also be a surprisingly quick and easy decision. There’s a pretty attractive alternative that’s been floating around for quite some time, which is to just change the team name from “Braves” to “Hammers.” This would require some simple changes to the uniform — namely, switching the names around and replacing the tomahawk with a hammer. It would be a pretty cool way to pay tribute to Hank Aaron, who has remained a prominent and highly revered figure with the Braves to this day. Also, the nickname would mean more than simply being a hammer since you know that if you put on a Hammers jersey, you’re carrying on the legacy of a man who retired as the Home Run King. I’m sure that the Braves would probably spend a lot of time and a lot of money trying to figure out a better nickname if they decided to go with a new visual identity, but they could save themselves a lot of both of those things if they just listened to us nerds on the internet.
Despite everything else that’s been going on and the Cleveland Indians finally deciding to move on from their longtime nickname, I still believe that we won’t see the Braves immediately follow suit. With that being said, I wouldn’t be shocked if it happens at some point in the relatively near future and I’d assume that they’d follow in Cleveland’s footsteps where they’d phase out the Native American imagery before changing the nickname. It really can’t be understated as to how much of a sea-change is going on at the moment where it suddenly became possible for both the Washington Football Team and Cleveland to switch up their visual identities. If those two changes happened, then I would imagine that it’s only a matter of time before the Braves go with the winds of change as well.
If and when a change does happen, I’m going to be just as big of a fan of the team as I am right now. Changing the nickname won’t change the fact that we’re going to be seeing Ronald Acuña Jr. tearing the cover off of the ball for the foreseeable future. A name change won’t suddenly sap Freddie Freeman of his MVP-caliber talent. Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson won’t suddenly forget how to seamlessly turn double plays because they’re no longer wearing uniforms with tomahawks on them. Max Fried’s curveball isn’t going to start hanging because the tomahawk chop is no longer being played before games. None of this will affect the ballplayers and how they perform on the field, but it will at least encourage fans of Native American heritage to be able to show up to the ballpark and enjoy the game in the stands without feeling like they’re someone to be made fun of. If making a change is enough to help even just one of our fellow Braves fans who are Native American to feel more welcome at the game, then that should be enough reason to justify the change when it happens.