Be BRAVE this Indigenous Peoples Day!

I never even heard of Ryan Helsley before last week.   The Cardinals pitcher apparently caused an upset in the athletic world after he boldly forced people to acknowledge something they already knew.  The Brave’s tomahawk chop is offensive and reinforces a stereotype created centuries ago.  Per usual, sports fans were more upset that their team lost than they were about a thirty year tradition that should have ended approximately …. 30 years ago.

Some of us know the horrible history of the tomahawk imagery.  Those who know the history should simply do better.  Not the history of how the chop became the symbol of the Braves as the AJC pointed out this week.  But rather the history of why the European settlers created the image of the savage, barbaric, head scalping, Native Americans.  Christopher Columbus, the murderous rapist however is never pictured killing and maiming but rather as a hero bravely leading his fleet of ships across the Atlantic.  Why do we do that?   

For those who do not know the historical context that makes the tomahawk chop so offensive here is a brief history lesson.  Europeans used the imagery of the Native Americans chopping off the heads of the colonist and scalping them to show the native people as barbaric, brutal, and unworthy of humane treatment.  It was the idea that the Natives were barbarians that allowed the encroaching Europeans to justify attempting to force them into slavery and when that failed, forcibly remove them from their land.[i]  And get this, it was the Europeans that used the tomahawk as a tool of war and introduced it to the Natives – not the other way around.

Warner Brothers comic. Cartoon at Agua Caliente Cultural Museum exhibition. Photo: Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.   

I can hear some of you rolling your eyes as you read this but follow with me.  This position against the tomahawk chop is not just another swipe at political correctness.  The use of Native cultures as a mascot, making fun of their heritage, and commercializing the pain that is within the foundation of our Country has always been wrong.  This is not the first discussion on this matter.  But it should be the last.  If you are comfortable with this offensive imagery, it is likely because you grew up with images like this.

Images like this one were pervasive in comics, television, and books for many years.

Here is the win for the Atlanta Braves.  Unlike the “Redskins”, the “Chiefs” and the “Indians” the title “Braves” can be re-branded and still used.   The Atlanta/Cobb County team can make a purposeful and direct about face.  The Braves should publicly retire all Native American imagery, issue a public apology, replace the team’s mascot, create a new chant, design new uniforms and symbols.

I can think of several BRAVE mascots.  An image of a first responder or an American soldier immediately comes to mind when I think of “Atlanta Braves”.  Maybe an activist or other everyday brave heroes could be the new symbol.  Why have one mascot when you can have a whole team.  Think the Village People without the “Indian.”

Why apologize?  Maybe the people sitting in the stadium today, from the nosebleeds to the executive boxes, had nothing to do with creating the stereotype.   However, sitting by passively and ignoring it, or perpetuating it makes you as bad as those who began the stereotype. Even if the Braves do not change, you can. 

Let us be real, sing the chant… go ahead you’re doing it in your head right now.  No one who is being honest with themselves can say they don’t see what is wrong with it.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone says, this stops with me and my generation?  I would love for the Braves to use their time of re-branding to educate people on the history of the Native people and their current state in America.

Today is Indigenous Peoples Day – celebrate it by becoming slightly less ignorant to the history of the first Americans, celebrate by being slightly less selfish in your love for a sports team, and celebrate by being a little more American by embracing all Americans – indigenous and immigrant.

Educate yourself here:

  1. https://digitalgallery.bgsu.edu/student/exhibits/show/race-in-us/native-americans/the—violent-savage-
  2. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/teach/native.htm
  3. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/telling-their-own-stories-native-american-stereotypes-art
  4. https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/tomahawks-and-tipis-native-american-representations-in-commercial-culture

[i] Scott Stevens, an Akwesasne Mohawk scholar, notes that the tomahawk, in the American imagination, came to be equated with “’Indian savagery’: the very notion by which Native Americans stood in opposition to European civility.” Stereotypes gain power when objects are taken out of context, and viewers learn to associate certain images with certain peoples and events; “when repeated frequently enough those misinterpretations take on the patina of truth.”[7] Thus, the image of a “violent Native with a tomahawk” came to be seen as absolute—even though Europeans had used hand axes in warfare long before their introduction into Native society. https://www.penn.museum/blog/museum/investigating-a-pipe-tomahawk/

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