ATLANTA — Losing Game 5 of the National League Division Series was crushing, but losing the tomahawk chop as well would be too much for Kevin Mooneyhan.
The Atlanta Braves baseball fan started a petition on Change.org to keep the rallying cry the morning after the Oct. 9 loss. Within 24 hours the online petition had gained 20,000 signatures and by Thursday boasted nearly 60,000 — about one and a half times the seating capacity of SunTrust Park.
"When you go to a Braves game and everyone is doing the tomahawk chop, it kind of gives you goosebumps," said the 36-year-old Mooneyhan, who lives in Jacksonville, Fl. and grew up rooting for the Braves.
The tomahawk chop, in which Braves fans are given foam tomahawks or use their arms and sing along to a distinctive cheer, found itself at the center of controversy during the postseason, reigniting a decades-long debate about sports teams depicting native peoples as mascots or in rituals.
The Braves' front office has said it will hold talks with Native Americans during the offseason as it weighs whether to keep or axe the 28-year-old tradition.
Cherokee and Creek tribal chiefs, representing the two major tribes that once inhabited Georgia, have criticized the Braves ritual as inappropriate. "It reduces Native Americans to a caricature and minimizes the contributions of Native peoples as equal citizens and human beings," Principal Chief James Floyd, head of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said recently.
The latest controversy erupted after St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, whose family has deep Cherokee roots, called the tomahawk "disrespectful" and "kind of caveman-type" behavior.
Helsley's comments, made during the Braves-Cardinals playoff series, prompted the Braves to stop handing out foam tomahawks when the series returned to Atlanta for Game 5. The chop was barely a whisper in that decisive game - but there also was little opportunity for Braves fans to cheer during the 13-1 shellacking.
Braves spokeswoman Beth Marshall said the team is aware of the petition to keep the chop and has spoken to many fans, but declined to comment further.
Several Republican leaders blamed the tomahawk chop's hiatus for the team's humiliating Game 5 loss, characterizing it as acquiescence to political correctness.
Mooneyhan, who launched the online petition to keep the chop, is the national program director for Tea Party Patriots Action, a conservative political organization. He wouldn't blame the loss on the silencing of the chop, but said the ritual embodies the idea that Native Americans were "fierce warriors" and that he doesn't see it as derogatory.
"It's a big part of the game. The Braves need to listen to their fans," he said.
For Katie Stanford, who signed the petition within two days of it going live, the chop has been part of her connection to the Braves going back to her childhood. She remembers doing the tomahawk chop as a 6th grader during the special 1991 season, when the team went from worst to first and the chop became the new rallying cry.
"It has always been a positive thing for me," said Stanford, who is 39 and lives in Lookout Mountain in the northwest corner of Georgia. "It's exciting. It builds momentum and I like it when fans come together and do the same thing."
In recent years, the tomahawk chop got a modern-day twist with the stadium dimming the lights and fans using the flashlights on their smartphones for illuminated chops. She loves that, too.
Erin Tarver, author of the book "The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity," said traditions have given fans a sense of team cohesiveness. Criticism of such traditions can be felt deeply and personally by loyal fans, she added.
But Tarver, an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford College of Emory University, said an unwavering devotion to this particular fan practice is "ethically problematic."
"In general, it is difficult to understand how something like the Tomahawk Chop could ‘honor' Native Americans when there are specific Native Americans telling them that they are not honored by it," said Tarver in an e-mail.
A better idea, according to Tarver, is to invent a new tradition.
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