Indians, Braves Team Name Controversies Get the Spotlight as Atlanta Pays a Rare Visit to Cleveland

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When the Atlanta Braves visit the Cleveland Indians this weekend for the first time in 12 years, the teams will be renewing an infrequent rivalry that goes beyond just the game of baseball.

On the field, the teams are forever linked: the Indians’ last World Series victory in 1948 came against the then-Boston Braves while the Braves’ last World Series victory came against the Indians in 1995. Off the field, though, the teams are also intertwined as MLB’s only two teams named after indigenous people, each having dealt with past controversies surrounding mascots and still stuck in ongoing debates about team names.

Fans attending Saturday's doubleheader will see a familiar site on Ontario St., as Philip Yenyo and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) will be holding another protest against the Indians’ team name on the sidewalk of Ontario St. outside the stadium. And the protest extends to the Braves, as well.

“Anytime there's a team that comes here that has the same kind of logo and nickname, we're going to be there,” Yenyo, executive director of AIM Ohio, told me. “If we're against the Cleveland team doing it, we're against all the others and that's what we're going to show them.”

Indeed, even with Wahoo gone, Yenyo and the AIM are pushing forward with their protests calling on the Indians to change the team name. “We got a part of what we wanted. We didn't get the name changed. I've said all this time, the entire chant, when you start out with ‘change the name, change the logo,’ how do you miss that first half of it?”

As to the Braves name, Yenyo holds a similar sentiment, saying, “I think what [Braves ownership] fail to realize is… they're still using a living culture as a theme for their baseball team. There is nothing brave about what they do. Plain and simple.”

Recently, there were reports the Braves were easing up on the “Tomahawk Chop,” the war chant fans sing which is accompanied by a “chopping” motion of the right arm. The Braves have used the “Chop” since the early 1990’s but it was first popularized by fans of the Florida State Seminoles in the 1980s (fans of the Kansas City Chiefs also sing the chant).

An October 1991 news story from the Braves’ run to the World Series will sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the Wahoo controversy: one local Native American protester called the chant, “dehumanizing, derogatory and very unethical,” while a fan described as wearing “a full Indian headdress” said, "I hope no one is offended by it. I don't do it other than for baseball. I don't go home and do it."

It was Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred who, in February 2019, indicated the team was going to cut back on the “Chop.” Upon accepting the National Congress of American Indians Public Sector Leadership Award for his role in getting the Indians to ditch Chief Wahoo, Manfred told the Washington Post, “The Braves have taken steps to take out the tomahawk chop. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that.”

But with the 2019 season underway, there are no signs the team is actually downplaying the “Chop” at all. First, there’s the wide availability of “Chop”-related merchandise available through the team, including hats and foam tomahawks. And then there’s the fact the team continues to play the chant at the team’s SunTrust Park during games, often audible during telecasts. (The Braves also sell merchandise with an old “laughing Indian” logo still available for trademark reasons, much like the Indians with Wahoo.)

So what gives? Well, it seems that it was a mistake on the commissioner’s part. Atlanta’s NBC affiliate, WXIA, reported that Manfred mistakenly namechecked the “Chop” when he meant to reference the Braves’ phasing out of their own controversial Native American mascot, Chief Noc-A-Homa, who the Braves abandoned before the 1986 season.

I reached out to both the Braves and Commissioner Manfred’s office for comment. The Braves have yet to respond and a PR rep for Major League Baseball couldn’t confirm or deny any effort by MLB to pressure the Braves to drop the “Chop” at this time.

“To me it's just another one of those stereotypical actions that people perform,” Yenyo told me, adding that a national smoothie chain, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, is now serving a “Chopical Smoothie” at their stand inside the Braves’ stadium.

Yenyo says there’s not currently an American Indian Movement chapter in Georgia; additional internet sleuthing doesn’t turn up much else in terms of groups protesting the Braves, though the Lawrence, Kansas-based Haskell Indian Nations University did ask Chiefs fans to curtail the “Chop” in 2016 to no avail.

Yenyo intends to be there no matter what tomorrow afternoon starting at 2 p.m. “We’re going to be out there rain or shine,” he said, adding with a small laugh, “I’m going to be there for at least half an hour.”

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