The 2022 Major League Baseball season is finally about to begin. This season will mark the first year that the Cleveland baseball team will be known as the Guardians rather than the Indians. This is a positive step toward respect for Indigenous people. However, this change sits in tension with the fact that the defending World Series champions are the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves organization has made no change to its team name or logo, or made any serious effort to get their fans to stop performing “tomahawk chop” gestures ― what they proudly call “The Chop” ― and chants that echo throughout the stands, as they did during last year’s playoffs broadcast to millions of people.
This contrast ― one franchise changing its name and logo and another banking on it all the way to the center stage of professional baseball ― raises a question: Why does this practice of naming teams after Indigenous people and mocking their traditions continue well into the 21st century, even in the face of direct criticism that they are racist and offensive, as asserted by such organizations as the National Congress of American Indians?
A major reason is that, despite notable success in the effort to end this practice, a good portion of the American public does not see Indigenous people as their contemporaries, as people who live in and around them. For many fans, there are not enough Indigenous people around to offend, and in fact, according to many fans and team owners, these names actually ‘honor’ Indigenous people.
When fans and owners say their team’s name honors Indigenous people, one could ask: Well, why not “honor” other racial or ethnic minorities to this same degree and extent? What makes Indigenous people so worthy? The answer is that the so-called honor here is meant for people deemed to no longer exist as relevant people, to be long since dead. Through this colonialist logic, “honoring” means Indigenous people are rendered as the ghosts of a primitive past, noble savages who could not survive the U.S. “manifest destiny” and its civilizational expansion, although they put up a good fight, like “braves” “warriors” and “chiefs” do.
This is about more than racism. It is the logic of genocide, and this is what these names, logos, chops and chants reinforce: the elimination of Indigenous people from these lands, lands that now belong to the United States. The claim of racism thus does not go far enough.
The truth is, many fans of high school, college and professional teams who claim that their team’s name honors Indigenous people really do believe it. This belief is a product of U.S. national memory, according to which Indigenous people and the U.S. nation’s colonial practices are consigned to the past, a past out of which are made legends in the form of cowboy-and-Indian movies and in naming teams after, well, Cowboys and Indians, or Redskins, or Braves, or Chiefs, or fill in the blank of the name of your local team, or consumer product, or town, city or state.
This is the settler aspect of U.S. national memory, settler memory, in which reminders of the history of Indigenous people and colonialism on these lands are everywhere, just as is the accompanying belief that Indigenous people’s lives today are not relevant; they are nowhere except on our favorite sports jersey, or automobile, or military hardware or town name.
It is certainly true that these names and images are offensive and denigrating, but there is a reason why they are primarily targeted at Indigenous people and not as much at other groups who experience racism in the United States. These names are popular because they are premised on the elimination, the nonexistence, of Indigenous people. They reinforce a genocidal logic and in their own way celebrate, under the banner of “honoring,” colonial conquest and violence toward Indigenous people and the theft of their land. In this regard, consider the historical context of the creation of these two MLB names, one triumphant, the other defunct.
The Boston Braves got their name in 1912 and eventually relocated to Milwaukee and then to Atlanta, and the Cleveland Indians took on their name in 1915. It is not a coincidence that these and other names (such as the Chicago Blackhawks in 1926 and the now-defunct Washington Redskins in 1933) emerged during the early 20th century. This was a period in which the recorded population of Indigenous people was at its low point (248,000, according to the 1890 U.S. census) and the U.S. effort to take land from Indigenous nations was moving at a rapid pace.
The period from 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 Indigenous tribal reservations (and destroy Indigenous tribes and nations themselves) by allotting individual parcels of land provisionally to some Indigenous people to assimilate them as private-property-holding U.S. citizens, and sell off the rest of their lands to non-Indigenous purchasers, primarily white settlers. From the U.S. perspective, the implementation of the Allotment Act was very successful. By 1934, it turned 90 million acres of Indigenous collective territory into settler-owned private property – 90 million acres! So, this is the context: At the exact period when Indigenous people seem to be disappearing and so much of their land is being taken over by the United States, the practice of naming sports teams after Indigenous people suddenly becomes very popular, spreading across the nation. As Indigenous people and their land, in their concrete existence, move to the margins of U.S. society (out of sight, out of mind, already consigned to the past), the symbolic power of Indian identity in all its caricatured forms moves increasingly to the center of U.S. popular culture, as more and more white Americans cannot wait to ”play Indian.”
It is important to put this practice into historical context to understand that names such as the Braves are not just offensive; they are steeped in the blood of genocide and land theft of U.S. colonization that is not consigned to the past; it shapes and continues to the present.
Today, the Indigenous population across these lands numbers in the millions of people, with hundreds of Indigenous nations and many political movements fighting for their sovereignty and land rights, and against pipelines, state repression and violence ― from Standing Rock to Mauna Kea, to demanding #LandBack and addressing the violence and traumatic legacy of Indian boarding schools and raising awareness about the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Turtle Island (so-called U.S. and Canada).
These Indigenous movements are growing and deserve the support of non-Indigenous people, but efforts to build awareness and alliances are made more challenging when a popular view in U.S. culture is that Indigenous people should be honored for their legendary past but have no functional role in the present. They serve quite well as symbols for cheering on a team in the World Series, but not so much as people to collaborate with to make this a better world. If you cannot see a people for who they are right now, how can you stand with them and take their claims seriously? These team names and representations honor genocide by another name and help blind us to the reality and complexity of contemporary Indigenous people’s lives and politics.
Those of us who are not Indigenous must now step up to the plate and refuse this settler memory, as uncomfortable as it may make us. If we do not, the chants will continue and get even louder as fans “honor” this nation’s genocidal history through their sports teams and drown out the calls by Indigenous people for justice today.