It’s been 27 years since Levi Walker last dressed up as Chief Noc-A-Homa at Atlanta Braves games, but he knows he hasn’t been forgotten.
Like Hank Aaron’s quick swing, the brashness of owner Ted Turner and the knuckleballs of Phil Niekro, the Chief was a big part of Braves baseball in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Walker, 70, a longtime Georgian who recently moved to Michigan, says Braves fans still seek him out to talk about his years as the Braves’ Chief.
“I was the honorary sports chairman for the Fourth of July parade this year in Demorest, Ga.,” said Walker, a tribal elder with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Harbor Springs, Mich. “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.’”
Before each home game, Chief Noc-A-Homa, dressed in Native American costume, would do a dance on the pitcher’s mound and then head out to left field where he would watch the game from a tepee set on a platform in the bleachers. When a Braves player homered, he’d set off smoke signals and come out of the tepee to do a celebration dance.
Walker was the third person to play the Chief in Atlanta after the team moved from Milwaukee for the 1966 season, but played the role the longest, from 1969 through 1985.
In January 1986, the Braves and Walker came to a mutual parting -- Walker says they decided to “agree to disagree” -- and the team retired Chief Noc-a-Homa.
Walker says the disagreement was about his attendance at public appearances in the Atlanta area, with the team saying he had missed more than Walker says he had.
Looking back, Walker believes it was a way the team could drop Chief Noc-A-Homa and eliminate the criticism it was getting that the mascot was dated and racially insensitive.
“They were overly sensitive about being politically correct,” Walker said. “That’s one of the reasons why they took that job performance as a way of terminating me.”
At the time, a newspaper reported Walker was making $60 per week and that he received a $5,000 termination settlement.
Though his run as Chief Noc-A-Homa came to an abrupt end, Walker thoroughly enjoyed his time with the Braves. He loved interacting with the fans out in left field and watching the Braves win, which they often did. His memories include one game in 1969 when a smoke grenade set his tepee on fire, and says he also was on hand for two triple plays that “happened so fast” he doesn’t remember anything about them.
Though he admired the stars, such as Aaron and Dale Murphy, his favorite players to watch were second basemen Felix Millan and Glenn Hubbard.
“That’s a gutsy position,” he said. “You’ve got to be quick.”
Walker says that as Chief Noc-A-Homa, he had the chance 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.”
He recalls that to many Braves fans, a game with Chief Noc-A-Homa in left field meant good luck. In 1982, for instance, he says when the tepee was taken down in left field to reconfigure the stadium for an exhibition football game -- and then was kept down -- the Braves went into a tailspin, eventually losing 19 of 21 games and falling out of 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.”
Of course, the Braves rebounded and went on to clinch the NL West title.
After Walker stepped out of his role as Chief Noc-A-Homa, he stepped into a role as educator and ambassador for Native American culture, going to powwows and community festivals throughout Georgia, doing demonstrations and making arrowheads, shields and knife blades and tanning hides.
“It’s my way of trying to keep the traditions alive,” he said.
Now living in Michigan after a recent move from Cleveland, Ga., he’s involved with the Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians as an elder, continuing to try to keep traditions alive, meeting with other elders twice each week and trying to learn more of his people’s native language.
Though he needs a hearing aid, he does 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 still doesn’t understand the objections of others about the presence of Chief Noc-A-Homa at Braves games back in the ’80s. He admits the American Indian Movement was vocal in its condemnation, but said, “The general consensus of the native people were in favor of Chief Noc-A-Homa.”
Today, 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.”