World Series Reignites Controversy around Native Mascots

Kevin Sethre, staff writer

The long standing debate on the use of Native-themed names and mascots in professional and collegiate sports was reignited recently when the Atlanta Braves faced off against the Houston Astros in the World Series. In a press conference on Oct. 26, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said that the question surrounding the team’s name and their fans’ use of the infamous “tomahawk chop” chant was a “local issue” because baseball is not marketed “on a nationwide basis” and that Natives in the Atlanta region are “wholly supportive” of the name and the chant, according to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) promptly released a statement in response to Manfred’s claims. NCAI President Fawn Sharp strongly disagreed with Manfred, stating “Nothing could be further from the truth, […] the name ‘Braves’, the tomahawk adorning the team’s uniform, and the ‘tomahawk chop’ that the team exhorts its fans to perform at home games are meant to depict and caricature not just one tribal community but all Native people, and that is certainly how baseball fans and Native people everywhere interpret them.” Later in the statement, he said that “the league and team have an obligation to genuinely listen to Tribal Nations and leaders across the United State about how the team’s mascot impacts them.” The NCAI has been very clear in its opposition to Native mascots for over fifty years. “In our discussions with the Atlanta Braves,” another part of the statement reads, “we have repeatedly and unequivocally made our position clear – Native people are not mascots, and degrading rituals like the ‘tomahawk chop’ that dehumanize and harm us have no place in American society.”

Eric Buffalohead, chair of the American Indian Studies department, agreed with their statement. Buffalohead, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, said that using Native team names is “problematic” for a number of reasons. “If you just basically look at all the names, it lumps [Natives] into categories with non-human things and things that don’t exist,” he explains. “We’re humans and we exist, so when all of these other things don’t exist or existed historically, or are fantasy […] or are something that’s not human, it takes away from our humanity. It dehumanizes us.”

When asked about the Braves’ uniform, Buffalohead stated “It’s more than just this chop. It’s the song and the chant that goes along with it. It’s the face paint people wear and the headdresses they wear… It’s the whole thing, and I don’t think you can just say, ‘Well, we found a couple Natives who think it’s okay’ and then go with it.”

He also pointed out that Manfred’s assertion that it is a local issue makes no sense as there are no federally recognized tribes in the state of Georgia. “Who exactly are the local tribes that you’re talking to?” he asked. “Are you talking to the Seminoles in Florida? Or are you talking to the un-federally recognized Cherokee in North Carolina? I mean, there aren’t really any tribes in the region.”

When the Braves faced the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series, Oglala Lakota journalist Tim Giago wrote in an article for Indian Country Today, “If even one Indian in America feels insulted by being used as a mascot, that should be enough. We don’t have anything to prove, but we certainly have plenty to be angry about.” 

Buffalohead echoed that sentiment. “The reality is, those of us Natives out here who are bothered by it, we have a right to a voice, whether it’s in our region or not.”