The first-ever Native American All-Star Baseball Showcase, highlighting players across the country last month, was a “good thing for our Native youth,” says Charlene Teters, retired dean of Santa Fe’s Institute for American Indian Arts and member of the Spokane Tribe.
“It doesn’t excuse the Atlanta Braves, though,” says Teters, who has been at the forefront of an ongoing national debate around high school, college and professional sports teams using Native American imagery—and often racist parodies thereof—as mascots.
The reigning World Series champs hosted the event at Truist Park, inviting the top 50 Native youth players from around the country to participate in a pro-style practice and showcase game. Two local high school players, both members of the Pueblo of Cochiti, were part of the group representing 34 tribal affiliations from the US and one from Canada.
Santa Fe Indian School graduate Kyle Suina and Santa Fe High School senior Gabriel Lomayestewa made the trip to Atlanta after receiving invitations to the event.
The showcase comes less than a year since the Braves won the 2021 World Series, which reignited national discussion about the team’s use of Native American symbolism and an infamous fan ritual, the “tomahawk chop.”
Greg McMichael, director of alumni relations for the Braves, says the organization doesn’t need to talk about its respect and admiration for Native American communities, because “actions speak louder than words.”
“If they’re in Braves country, the right thing to do is to provide opportunity and access,” he tells SFR. “I think we’re doing that just not with them, but with a lot of different groups…It doesn’t matter what community you’re in. I’m looking for opportunities. We care deeply about our Native American community, because we’re so closely tied with them. So, sure, we want to help them and we’re looking at that in all groups.”
Mascots, names and traditions shape a sports team’s image. Franchises funnel millions of dollars into their identity, which fans grow to cherish. So changes to an organization’s ways and culture often meet pushback from teams and their supporters.
Monikers and rituals like the tomahawk chop, though, “put Native people in a situation where we’re entertainment,” says Teters. “One thing about Americans is they know very little about the people whose lands they occupy. So when these teams use these identities, it becomes a platform for people to act out their perceptions of Native people, their stereotypes of Native people. That’s why we’ve been challenging the use of our names as a sports team identity.”
Teters says the Braves organization has some work to do “in terms of weaning their fans away from using Native people as entertainment,” and that the “best thing they could do is to move away from the name ‘Braves.’”
Suina and Lomayestewa are fans of the Braves, though, and were excited at the chance to go play in a big league stadium. Suina says he understands the criticism the ball club has received, “but it doesn’t really affect me that much.”
“I’m kind of biased about it, to be honest,” he tells SFR. “It’s kind of offensive, but not offensive. I’m a pretty big Braves fan, but that’s just my preference.”
Lomayestewa tells SFR the Brave’s decision to host the all-Native event was “genuine,” and he doesn’t get bothered by the name or imagery.
“I was at the field and they were talking to us about how Native Americans inspired them,” he says. “They want to contribute to the Native American community and showcase that Native Americans are still in America and participating in sports and everyday life.”
Some players have been outspoken critics of the tomahawk chop, including 2022 all-star Ryan Helsley, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. The National Congress of American Indians, a Native rights organization, has also long opposed the Braves’ fan ritual and team name.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has stood up for the team, meanwhile, saying before the World Series last year that the Native American community in the Atlanta area supports the organization, which has a close partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians based in North Carolina.
Braves fans have chanted along with the chop at games since the 1990s. Its use still “doesn’t sit well” with Pueblo of Cochiti Gov. Phillip Quintana, but he likes the team’s name.
“They should try to make sure that when they do speak of Native Americans, they should try to do it in a respectful, honorable way,” he says.
As the nation has recently seen major sports franchises buckle to public pressure and drop racist names for their teams, such identity overhauls are massive undertakings. So the chances of the Braves changing course anytime soon are slim, Teters tells SFR, but she adds that events like the recent showcase bolster dialogue for organizations and Native communities to find common ground.