The Chief Whose Time Had Passed

Chief Noc-A-Homa

The Chief Whose Time Had Passed
| published July 10, 2014 |

Chief Noc-A-Homa image courtesy of University of Georgia

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review Features Editor

Now that political correctness rules our world, Chief Noc-A-Homa's tepee has been packed up and he's evidently struck camp for the last time, according to ESPN.

The Washington Redskins have taken such a thrashing lately that it seems a name change for the NFL team is on the horizon, one way or the other. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently announced that they would no longer recognize the team’s owners claims of trademark protection for a term deemed offensive. The action will surely have a huge impact across the country in places where sports teams’ mascots—professional, collegiate, even high school—use variants of terms potentially offensive to one group or another.

But if you attended Atlanta Braves baseball games in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, you'll remember legendary Hank Aaron's quick swing, Ted Turner's brashness, and Phil Niekro's knuckleball. And there was also Levi Walker, Jr.

Out in the left-field bleachers you would find a tepee and its platform, where Noc-A-Ho-Ma held court during home games. At the start of a game, the Native American-costumed chief would do a dance on the pitcher's mound before adjourning to his perch. Then every time a Brave homered, he'd set off smoke signals and perform a celebratory dance. It's been almost three decades since the longtime Georgian was touted as the Braves' biggest supporter, but Atlanta fans haven't forgotten the Chief. He recently relocated to Michigan.

“I was the honorary sports chairman for the Fourth of July parade this year in Demorest, Georgia,” said Walker, a tribal elder with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Harbor Springs, Michigan.

“Everybody remembers me as Chief Noc-A-Homa, and you know those people who were there [at the parade] were adults, but were kids back in 1975 and ’78. They were saying, ‘My dad used to take me to all the games. We used to come out and see you and get an autograph and then we’d go watch the rest of the game.' "

Noc-A-Homa was the Milwaukee Braves' official mascot from the 1950s until 1986, with the old-time cartoony visage appearing on memorabilia for decades. The team relocated to Atlanta prior to the 1966 season, with Walker being Atlanta's third chief. He camped in the left-field stands the longest, from 1969 through 1985.

The Braves and Noc-A-Homa came to a mutual parting of the ways in January 1986, when they 'retired' Noc-A-Homa and Princess Win-A-Lotta. No word on the disposition of his son, Hit-A-Single, who performed briefly with Walker.

The Ottawa native said they decided to "agree to disagree," with the team claiming he missed Atlanta area public appearances, which he denied. Walker said the Braves probably wanted to drop Noc-A-Homa to eliminate criticism, following complaints about the mascot being dated and racially insensitive.

“They were overly sensitive about being politically correct,” he said. "That’s one of the reasons why they took that job performance as a way of terminating me.”

Walker was extremely proud of the years he represented the Braves and he enjoyed watching them win, but he mostly loved interacting with the fans in left field. He reminisced about one game in 1969 when a smoke grenade set his tepee on fire, and then there were the two triple-plays that "happened so fast" he didn't remember anything about them.

He admired the stars, including Aaron and Dale Murphy, but the players he most enjoyed watching included second basemen Felix Millan and Glenn Hubbard. “That’s a gutsy position,” he said. “You’ve got to be quick.”

Walker truly enjoyed the opportunity to play a small role on a big stage, entertaining fans and making the game more enjoyable for others.

“I was a colorful individual in the game of baseball,” he said. “I met four presidents, two kings, a sheik and his four wives, kids in the ghetto, ZZ Top, Three Dog Night, Led Zeppelin, Roy Clark, Jerry Reed, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Cab Calloway, Shirley Henderson, Olivia Newton-John, Loretta Lynn, Alabama and a number of other celebrities that came to a game.”

Baseball has always had its superstitions, and Braves fans say Noc-A-Homa meant good luck for the team. They went on losing streaks several times when his tepee was taken down to sell more tickets. And then there was 1982, when his tepee was dismantled to reconfigure the stadium for an exhibition football game—and then was kept down. The Braves took a nosedive, losing 19 of 21 games and falling from the National League West lead.

“The general public was saying it was because we took the tepee down that we lost,” he said. “There were people who came to the stadium wearing tepees on top of their head, and it was the general public’s outcry that finally caused Ted Turner to put the tepee back up.”

The Braves rebounded and went on to clinch the National League West pennant. However, they were then swept 3-0 by the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. Between the superstitions and the fickle baseball gods, you just never know what will happen.

Walker may have been run-off the reservation, but he was still a huge celebrity throughout Georgia. He became an educator and ambassador for Native American culture, going to powwows and community festivals where he did demonstrations, along with making arrowheads, shields and knife blades and tanning hides. “It’s my way of trying to keep the traditions alive,” he said.

A couple of years ago, Walker left his Cleveland, Georgia, home and moved to Michigan, where he enjoys meeting with fellow Odawa elders twice weekly, attempting to learn more of his people's native language. Although he needs a hearing aid, Walker's doing his best.

“I’m not fluent enough to carry on a conversation, but it’s to the state where I understand what they’re talking about,” he said.

He's still saddened by the objections of others over the Noc-A-Homa flap back in the '80's. He knows the American Indian Movement was vocal in its condemnation of his presence, but he still said “The general consensus of the native people were in favor of Chief Noc-A-Homa.”

We've probably seen the last of the Chief, but Walker says he’d love to go back to Atlanta for just one more Braves game.

“I enjoyed it a lot,” he said of his years with the team. “It would be nice if they would have a Chief Noc-A-Homa Day for one day to honor the celebrityship.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

What's In A Name; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; June 27, 2014.

Wrigley Field at the Century Mark; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; June 7, 2014.