I remember staying up late on an October night in 1992 to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves in the seventh game of the National League Championship Series. I was around 13 years old and in Northwest Louisiana, far away from Fulton County Stadium. I don’t recall everything about that game, but I vividly recall seeing Sid Bream rounding third and sliding into home to clinch the deciding game for Atlanta. Ecstatic, I jumped up and down, muffling screams because my parents were in bed, and I called my grandfather, a longtime Atlanta fan, thanks to their national reach via Turner Broadcasting. My dad got mad that I called my grandfather so late, but I didn’t care.
I grew up an Atlanta fan. I knew about Dale Murphy, Bruce Benedict, Bob Horner, Bruce Sutter, and Glenn Hubbard. I remember watching games at my grandparents house and getting a mass-produced team autographed baseball. I remember hearing the “tomahawk chop” over the television screen and joyfully joining in as the mass of people in the stadium droned in unison as they raised and lowered their arms in a chopping motion. Along with cheering for Atlanta, I cheered for the Florida State Seminoles, where the “tomahawk chop” originated. Needless to say, I was well indoctrinated with “the chop.”
I’m still an Atlanta fan, but I refuse to participate in “the chop.” I can’t recall when I made this decision. I know it was before I attended a game at Turner Field a few years back, sitting down the right field line, and I looked down into the right field stands and saw someone in red face, with full Plains Indian headdress, in the front row.
Recently, I had a discussion with someone about Marie Cochran’s essay “I Pledge Allegiance to Affrilachia.” In the essay, Cochran talks about the history of her hometown, Toccoa, Georgia, and about her experience as a Black girl and woman in the region. Cochran writes about the etymology of Toccoa, and she notes its Cherokee origin, highlighting how “almost every local Chamber of Commerce brochure claims that translated into English it means ‘the beautiful,’ though it was probably derived from ‘tagwahi,’ meaning ‘Catawba place.’” While the appropriation of Indigenous words and names for tourism is one thing, Cochran also notes that that her alma mater “is still the Indians, boldly and inaccurately adorned in Plains Indian headgear,” a blatant appropriation of Indigenous identity through stereotypes.
During high school, she didn’t learn much about the “Trail of Tears” even though she lived on Muscogee and Cherokee land. She didn’t learn that the Andrew Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act to expand chattel slavery, open up agricultural land, and because people found gold on the land. She didn’t learn about the removal of Indigenous people to Arkansas then to Oklahoma. She didn’t learn about the reservations or the governmental policies that continue to impact these communities. She didn’t learn about any of this, and neither did I.
When talking with someone about Cochran’s description of Toccoa, I connected it with “the chop,” telling the person that this is partly why I don’t participate when everyone else in the stadium joins in and why I refuse to have an Atlanta shirt with the tomahawk displayed anywhere on the article of clothing. The person couldn’t understand why, if I’m a fan, I would refuse to join in with my fellow fans in a symbolic act of solidarity as we cheer on the team we love. I told the person that, for one, I found it offensive because it is a stereotype, a caricature of Indigenous individuals, playing on a history of stereotypes of war whoops and savagery. I recall a young William Apess (Pequot) encountering two women in the woods and being afraid they were Indigenous and would catch him and scalp him. It turns out, they were white women. Apess, though, had been indoctrinated into a thought that Indigenous individuals are savage, uncivilized, and violent.
My interlocutor argues that “the chop” is not offensive, that in fact glorifies Indigenous culture. This, of course, isn’t the case. Countless Indigenous leaders and organization have criticized Atlanta’s use of “the chop” and other imagery. In the 2019 NLDS, a reporter asked Ryan Helsley (Cherokee), a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, his thoughts about “the chop.” He told the reported that “the chop” depicts Indigenous individuals “in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual.” It demeans them, dehumanizes them, and stereotypes them. Atlanta removed the foam tomahawks from seats for the next NLDS game against St. Louis, and during the offseason, the organization evaluated “the chop.” Ultimately, they decided to keep it, and even MLB commissioner Rob Manfred balked at calling on the team to cease the chant.
Still my conversant didn’t budge, claiming that its fandom, nothing more, and that “the chop,” along with the Braves team name and other imagery provide aren’t bad. I then pointed out that “the chop,” along with the Braves name, presents Indigenous individuals as a monolithic group, lumping countless tribes and cultures into one stereotypical image. Still, the person argued that nothing is wrong with “the chop.” Even pointing out the history and the ways that the history informs the problems with “the chop,” saying how it influenced me as a child, the person asked, “What about a 13–14 year old who doesn’t know what it means?” I was that 13–14 year old. I didn’t know what it meant. However, when I learned about the history, the psychological impacts of stereotypes and caricatures, and the ways that all of these work together to dehumanize and oppress individuals, I chose to not participate in “the chop.” I educate my children about it, even though they don’t like baseball (that’s a whole other story).
The person’s mind didn’t change, and I didn’t expect it to change. However, I hope that I led the person to think about, or at least examine, why they choose to continue to do “the chop” even when they know others find it offensive and problematic. I can’t change Atlanta’s mind on “the chop.” While I view it as a racist act, like the Washington Redskins name, I know that others do not view it in the same way they do the racist slur and iconography of Washington’s football team. Yet, even tough I know that getting Atlanta to stop “the chop” will not occur, I know that I will not do it. I know why I refuse to do it, and I will tell others why I refuse.
Internally, I wrestle with whether or not I should continue to cheer for Atlanta. It’s a similar tension I feel about college football and even the NFL, even though each of those are different. Fandom connects us, and it’s nostalgic. We find teams and connect with them for various reasons, and those reasons are deeply personal. For me, my fandom for Atlanta stems from my grandfather, my coming of age, and from the love of baseball I had as a kid. These are inextricably linked to me, and I can’t deny them. Just know, though, that my fandom does not, and should not, ever mean that I, or you, cannot be critical of an organization’s choices and actions.