If nifty little “pep” gestures like the “Indian Chant” and the “Tomahawk Chop” are just good clean fun then let’s spread the fun around shall we?
During the past couple of seasons, there has been an increasing wave of controversy regarding the names of professional sports teams like the Atlanta “Braves,” Cleveland “Indians,” Washington “Redskins” and Kansas City “Chiefs.” The issue extends to the names of college teams like Florida State University “Seminoles,” University of Illinois “Fighting lllini” and so on, right on down to high school outfits like the Lamar (Colorado) “Savages.” Also involved have been team adoption of “mascots,” replete with feathers, buckskin, beads, spears and “warpaint” (some fans have opted to adorn themselves in the same fashion), and nifty little “pep” gestures like the “Indian Chant” and “Tomahawk Chop.”
A substantial number of American Indians have protested that use of native names, images and symbols as sports team mascots and the like is, by definition, a virulently racist practice. Given the historical relationship between Indians and non- Indians during what has been called the “Conquest of America,” American Indian Movement leader (and American Indian Anti-Defamation Council founder) Russell Means has compared the practice to contemporary Germans naming their soccer teams the “Jews,” “Hebrews” and “Yids,” while adorning their uniforms with grotesque caricatures of Jewish faces taken from the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda of the 1930s. Numerous demonstrations have occurred in conjunction with games—most notably during the November 15,1992 matchup between the Chiefs and Redskins in Kansas City—by angry Indians and their supporters.
In response, a number of players—especially African Americans and other minority athletes—have been trotted out by professional team owners like Ted Turner, as well as university and public school officials, to announce that they mean not to insult but to honour native people. They have been joined by the television networks and most major newspapers, all of which have editorialized that Indian discomfort with the situation is “no big deal,” insisting that the whole thing is just “good, clean fun.” The country needs more such fun, they’ve argued, and “a few disgruntled Native Americans” have no right to undermine the nation’s enjoyment of its leisure time by complaining. This is especially the case, some have argued, “in hard times like these.” It has even been contended that Indian outrage at being systematically degraded—rather than the degradation itself— creates “a serious barrier to the sort of intergroup communication so necessary in a multicultural society such as ours.”
Okay, let’s communicate. We are frankly dubious that those advancing such positions really believe their own rhetoric, but, just for the sake of argument, let’s accept their premise that they are sincere. If what they say is true, then isn’t it time we spread such “inoffensiveness” and “good cheer” around among all groups so that everybody can participate equally in fostering the round of national laughs they call for? Sure it is—the country can’t have too much fun or “intergroup involvement”- -so the more, the merrier. Simple consistency demands that anyone who thinks the Tomahawk Chop is a swell pastime must be just as hearty in their endorsement of the following ideas—by the logic used to defend the defamation of American Indians—to help us all really start yucking it up.
First, as a counterpart to the Redskins, we need an NFL team called “Niggers” to honour Afro-Americans. Half-time festivities for fans might include a simulated stewing of the opposing coach in a large pot while lawyers and cheerleaders dance around it, garbed in leopard skins and wearing fake bones in their noses. This concept obviously goes along with the kind of gaiety attending the Chop, but also with the actions of the Kansas City Chiefs, whose team members—prominently including black team members—lately appeared on a poster looking “fierce” and “savage” by way of wearing Indian regalia. Just a bit of harmless “morale boosting,” says the Chiefs’ front office. You bet.
So that the newly-formed Niggers sports club won’t end up too out of sync while expressing the “spirit” and “identity” of Afro-Americans in the above fashion, a base-ball franchise—let’s call this one the “Sambos”—should be formed. How about a basketball team called the “Spearchuckers”? A hockey team called the “Jungle Bunnies”? Maybe the “essence” of
these teams could be depicted by images of tiny black faces adorned with huge pairs of lips. The players could appear on TV every week or so gnawing on chicken legs and spitting watermelon seeds at one another. Catchy, eh? Well, there’s “nothing to be upset about,” according to those who love wearing “war bonnets” to the Super Bowl or having “Chief llliniwik” dance around the sports arenas of Urbana, Illinois.
And why stop there? There are plenty of other groups to include. “Hispanics”? They can be “represented” by the Galveston “Greasers” and San Diego “Spies,” at least until the Wisconsin “Wetbacks” and Baltimore “Beaners” get off the ground. Asian Americans? How about the “Slopes,” “Dinks,” “Cooks” and “Zipperheads”? Owners of the latter teams might get their logo ideas from editorial page cartoons printed in the nation’s newspapers during World War II: slant-eyes, buck teeth, big glasses, but nothing racially insulting or derogatory, according to the editors and artists involved at the time.
Indeed, this Second World War-vintage stuff can be seen as just another barrel of laughs, at least by what current editors say are their “local standards” concerning American Indians.
Let’s see. Who’s been left out? Teams like the Kansas City “Kikes,” Hanover “Honkies,” San Leandro” Shylocks,” Daytona “Dagos” and Pittsburgh “Polacks” will fill a certain social void among white folk. Have a religious belief? Let’s all go for the gusto and gear up the Milwaukee “Mackerel Snappers” and Hollywood “Holy Rollers.” The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame can be rechristened the “Drunken Irish” or “Papist Pigs.” Issues of gender and sexual preference can be addressed through creation of teams like the St. Louis “Sluts,” Boston “Bimbos,” Detroit “Dykes” and the Fresno “Fags.” How about the Gainesville “Gimps” and Richmond “Retards,” so the physically and mentally impaired won’t be excluded from our fun and games?
Now, don’t go getting “overly sensitive” out there. None of this is demeaning or insulting, at least not when it’s being done to Indians. Just ask the folks who are doing it, or their apologists like Andy Rooney in the national media. They’ll tell you— as in fact they have been telling you—that there’s been no harm done, regardless of what their victims think, feel or say. The situation is exactly the same as when those with precisely the same mentality used to insist that Step ‘n’ Fetchit was okay, or Rochester on the Jack Benny Show, or Amos and Andy, Charlie Chan, the Frito Bandito, or any of the other cutsey symbols making up the lexicon of American racism. Have we communicated yet?
Let’s get just a little bit real here. The notion of “fun” embodied in rituals like the Tomahawk Chop must be understood for what it is. There’s not a single non-Indian example used above which can be considered socially acceptable in even the most marginal sense. The reasons are obvious enough. So why is it different when American Indians are concerned? One can only conclude that, in contrast to the other groups at issue, Indians are (falsely) perceived as being too few, and therefore too weak, to defend themselves effectively against racist and otherwise offensive behaviour.
Fortunately, there are some glimmers of hope. A few teams and their fans have gotten the message and have responded appropriately. Stanford University, which opted to drop the name “Indians” from Stanford, has experienced no resulting drop-off in attendance. Meanwhile, the local newspaper in Portland, Oregon recently decided its long-standing editorial policy prohibiting use of racial epithets should include derogatory team names. The Redskins, for example, are now referred to as “the Washington team,” and will continue to be described in this way until the franchise adopts an inoffensive moniker (newspaper sales in Portland have suffered no decline as a result).
Such examples are to be applauded and encouraged. They stand as figurative beacons in the night, proving beyond all doubt that it is quite possible to indulge in the pleasure of athletics without accepting blatant racism into the bargain.
Ward Churchill is the co-coordinator of the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement. This article first appeared in the U.S. monthly Z Magazine. It is reprinted with Churchill’s permission.