The 2022 Major League Baseball season is finally about to begin. This season will mark the first year the Cleveland baseball team will be known as the Guardians rather than the Indians. This is a positive step towards respecting indigenous peoples. However, this change is in tension with the fact that the defending World Series champions are the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves organization hasn’t made any changes to its team name or logo, or made any serious effort to stop its fans performing “tomahawk chop” gestures ― what they proudly call “The Chop ― and chants that echo through the stands, as they did in last year’s playoffs broadcast to millions.
This contrast—one franchise changing its name and logo and another building on it to center stage in professional baseball—raises a question: Why this practice of naming teams after Indigenous peoples and mocking their traditions? does it continue well at 21st century, even in the face of direct criticism that they are racist and offensive, as organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians?
One of the main reasons is that, despite the notable success of efforts to end the practice, much of the American public does not see Indigenous peoples as their contemporaries, as people who live in and around them. them. For many fans, there aren’t enough Native people to offend, and in fact, according to many fans and team owners, these names actually “honor” the indigenous peoples.
When fans and owners say their team name honors Indigenous people, one might ask: why not “honor” other racial or ethnic minorities to the same degree and extent? What makes indigenous peoples so worthy? The answer is that the so-called honor here is for people considered to no longer exist as relevant, long-deceased people. In this colonialist logic, “to honor” means that indigenous peoples are rendered as ghosts of one primitive pass, noble savages who could not survive the “manifest destiny” of the United States and its civilizational expansion, even if they fought well, as the “brave”, the “warriors” and the “leaders” do.
It’s more than racism. This is the logic of genocide, and this is what these names, logos, chops and songs reinforce: the elimination of indigenous peoples from these lands, lands that now belong to the United States. So the allegation of racism does not go far enough.
The truth is, many fans of high school, college, and professional teams claim that their team’s name honors The natives really believe in it. This belief is a product of the national memory of the United States, according to which the indigenous peoples and the colonial practices of the American nation are relegated to the past, a past which is made into legends in the form of cowboy films and Indians and naming teams after, well, Cowboys and Indians, or Redskins, or Braves, or Chiefs, or fill in the blank with your local team name, or consumer product, or city, town, or state.
It is the colonial aspect of the national memory of the United States, the memory of the settlers, in which reminders of the history of Indigenous peoples and colonialism on these lands are everywhere, as is the accompanying belief that the lives of Indigenous peoples today are irrelevant; they’re nowhere except on our favorite sports jersey, or carWhere military equipment or the name of the city.
It’s certainly true that these names and images are offensive and disparaging, but there’s a reason they primarily target Indigenous peoples and not as much other racially-affected groups in the United States. These names are popular because they are based on the elimination, the non-existence, of indigenous peoples. They reinforce a genocidal logic and celebrate in their own way, under the sign of “honor”, the colonial conquest and the violence against the indigenous peoples and the theft of their lands. In this regard, consider the historical context of the creation of these two MLB names, one triumphant, the other defunct.
The Boston Braves received their name in 1912 and eventually moved to Milwaukee and then Atlanta, and the Cleveland Indians took their name in 1915. It is no coincidence that these and other names (such as the Chicago Blackhawks in 1926 and the now-former Washington Redskins in 1933) emerged in the early 20and century. This was a period when the recorded native population was at its lowest (248,000, according to the 1890 U.S. Census) and the American effort to take land from native nations was moving at a rapid pace.
The period of the 1887 to 1934 is known as the Allotment Era, named after the General Allotment Act of 1887. The Allotment Act was a federal policy created to break up Native tribal reservations (and destroy tribes and native nations themselves) by temporarily allocating individual parcels of land to some native people to assimilate them as U.S. citizens with private property and selling the rest of their land to non-native buyers, mostly white settlers. From a US perspective, the implementation of the Allotment Act has been very successful. In 1934, he turned 90 million acres of collective native territory into private property belonging to the settlers – 90 million acres! So here is the context: at the exact time when the indigenous peoples seem disappeared and much of their land was taken over by the United States, the practice of naming sports teams after Natives suddenly became very popular and spread across the country. As Indigenous peoples and their lands, in their concrete existence, move to the margins of American society (out of sight, out of mind, already consigned to the past), symbolic the power of Indian identity in all its cartoonish forms is increasingly moving to the center of American popular culture, as more and more white Americans look forward to “play Indian.”
It is important to place this practice in its historical context to understand that names such as the Braves are not only offensive; they are drenched in the blood of genocide and the land theft of American colonization that is not relegated to the past; it shapes and continues to the present.
Today, the indigenous population on these lands numbers in the millions, with hundreds of indigenous nations and numerous political movements fighting for their sovereignty and land rights, and against pipelines, repression and violence from the State of standing rock for Mauna Kea, to demand #LandBack and addressing the violence and traumatic legacy of Indian boarding schools and sensitize the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls across Turtle Island (so-called United States and Canada).
These Indigenous movements thrive and deserve the support of non-Indigenous people, but outreach and alliance efforts are made more difficult when a popular view in American culture is that Indigenous peoples should be honored for their legendary past but have no functional role in the present. They serve well enough as symbols to cheer on a team in the World Series, but not so much as people to collaborate with to make this world a better place. If you can’t see a people for what they are right now, how can you stand with them and take their demands seriously? These team names and depictions honor genocide by another name and help blind us to the reality and complexity of contemporary Indigenous life and politics.
Those of us who are not indigenous must now step up and refuse this settler memory, however uncomfortable it may make us. If we don’t, the chants will continue and grow louder as fans “honor” this nation’s genocidal history through their sports teams and drown out the calls of Indigenous peoples for justice today.