CHICAGO — Some of my favorite childhood memories took place at Turner Field.
From 6 years old until I was 17, I took an annual summer trip to Georgia. My dad originally is from Augusta, where my grandmother still lives. My aunt and uncle have lived in the Atlanta area for years.
And inevitably, those trips meant seeing my favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, play. I loved the atmosphere and participated in many of the traditions — the seventh-inning stretch, the food at the ballpark and the wave.
Something I also joined in on was the tomahawk chop, a tradition Braves fans adopted in 1991 in which spectators — either holding foam tomahawks or using their hands — move their hands back and forth while yelling an exaggerated chant that mocks and stereotypes Native American and Indigenous people.
As a kid, I didn’t understand the negative implications. But recently baseball, football and college teams across the country have started to reconsider their nicknames and racist imagery associated with them.
The Cleveland Indians announced earlier this year they would change their name in the near future — after already moving away from using Chief Wahoo imagery. The Washington Football Team took on its new name after businesses threatened to pull their sponsorships.
These discussions have also forced my family and me to reassess the histories and traditions of the teams we root for.
My Braves fandom comes strictly through my dad, who encouraged it from the moment I was born despite my growing up hundreds of miles away in Baltimore.
My dad, Chris, grew up watching the Braves on television in the 1970s with his grandmother, and he remembers a time when the team used the “Chief Noc-A-Homa” mascot.
The mascot, used for 20 years starting in 1966, initially was portrayed by a white man before Levi Walker, a member of the Odawa Tribe, took over the role in 1968. He believed he was honoring his heritage, but many felt the mascot was still insensitive.
For decades the Braves used a logo dubbed the “screaming Indian” before retiring the image.
My dad, like me, admits he didn’t recognize the connotations of the tomahawk chop at the time — partaking in the tradition like everyone else — and remembers Deion Sanders being on the team making the ritual cool. Sanders had played at Florida State, where the tomahawk chop originated in the 1980s.
“I feel very, very different about that than I used to 30 years ago,” my dad said, adding the tradition is wrong.
My dad believes the “Braves” name will change — he just doesn’t know when. It took the killing of George Floyd last summer, he noted, to galvanize leagues such as Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA to make systemic changes.
As my granddad, Joseph Hill, often jokes, “one of the only ways to spark change is to take money out of people’s pockets.”
He was right last summer: After years of owner Daniel Snyder rejecting calls to change the name, his favorite NFL team became “The Washington Football Team” after sponsors such as FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo threatened to end partnerships.
It isn’t the first time the franchise has gone back on its word.
Team founder George Preston Marshall had never put a Black player on the field in more than 25 years owning the team.
But Marshall’s hand was forced by the federal government, which owned D.C. Stadium and threatened to revoke the team’s 30-year lease if it didn’t integrate. In 1962, Bobby Mitchell became Washington’s first Black player.
Washington, Atlanta and other teams need to be more thoughtful and proactive moving forward. My granddad supported the Washington Football Team’s name change and hopes the organization is committed to change.
“Everybody should be forced to change anything that’s offensive,” he said.
Yet some teams have chosen to keep their names despite backlash from Native communities. The Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality (FIREE) protested before this year’s Super Bowl because of the Kansas City Chiefs’ name and use of the tomahawk chop.
Two years ago, the Braves were criticized by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee nation who called the chop disrespectful. It was only then that the Braves decided to keep foam tomahawks in storage for Game 5 of the National League Division Series. They are still undecided on whether they’ll allow the chant to continue moving forward.
But if members of marginalized groups are offended by names, logos and customs, that should be enough to support change.
That’s why this lifelong Braves fan thinks the team should change its name.
It’s time the team makes amends by acknowledging past mistakes and honoring these communities moving forward.
A name change wouldn’t alter my love for my favorite team — my granddad and dad echoed the same sentiment. But sometimes not all tradition is good tradition.
The hope is fans will continue to hold teams accountable for their actions to ensure they are properly honoring, highlighting and respecting Native American and Indigenous people.
Perspectives can change. Conversations can change. Traditions can change.
So can team names.