While elected officials such as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and designer brand Gucci drew outrage after attempting to derail Black History Month with a pair of ill-conceived blackface scandals, nobody bats an eye when a sea of Atlanta Braves fans busts out the Tomahawk Chop—their signature celebration that was adopted in 1991 after the team signed former Florida State University standout Deion Sanders.
The gesture—in which fans emulate a tomahawk by moving their forearm back and forth repeatedly, all while mimicking the tribal chants of indigenous people—is offensive as shit. But it has been pardoned and whitesplained as “a proud expression of unification and family” by the team’s former director of public relations.
There’s also Chief Wahoo—the recently retired racist caricature (once extolled as the paragon of “Cleveland pride”) that served as the Cleveland Indians longstanding logo for decades until MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Indians’ owner Paul Dolan finally caved to mounting pressure and got rid of that shit.
“Major League Baseball is committed to building a culture of diversity and inclusion throughout the game,” Manfred said in a statement. “Over the past year, we encouraged dialogue with the Indians organization about the club’s use of the Chief Wahoo logo [...] The club ultimately agreed with my position that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball.”
But while this sounds like a victory of sorts, to the indigenous community, it’s a battle that should’ve never even occurred—and one that other marginalized groups would never face in contemporary times.
“There’s a big, long, complicated history to this that’s really deep in American culture,” said Philip J. Deloria via the Associated Press. As a Harvard University history professor and author of Playing Indian—which deconstructs the myriad ways in which white Americans mimic indigenous traditions, ceremonies and stereotypes—he’s an expert on the matter. “It’s every bit as deep as blackface minstrelsy and slavery. It’s just out there, but we’ve kind of forgotten about it.”
As such, the frustration of his community is completely understandable.
“These are everyday realities for Native people,” added Standing Rock Sioux tribal member John Little.
As Stars and Stripes notes: “Throughout America’s history, people have donned redface, worn fringe and feathers, and spoken in broken English as they ‘played’ or portrayed Native Americans in theater, film and everyday life.”
But while indigenous cultures provide a treasure trove of traditions for the obtuse sect to mock and abuse, it’s the realm of sports in which these heinous stereotypes take center stage.
Team owners, reps and fans are quick to dismiss their allegiance to indigenous names and mascots as a respectful homage, but scholar James Riding In—a professor and founding member of Arizona State University’s American Indian Studies Program—calls bullshit.
“I flatly reject the contention of team owners and sports fans that American Indian-oriented team names, logos and mascots in professional and amateur sports pay homage to Indian bravery and courage,” he told ASU Now. “Their so-called honoring celebrations of Indian heroism are not only misguided, harmful and offensive to Indians but are also inextricably tied to this nation’s history of racism. Because their behavior falls within a historical pattern of white American privilege that includes devising images of others for self-servicing purposes, they are participating in a disingenuous culture of honor. Indians, victims of this unwanted attention, should be the ones to determine what constitutes honor and respect in instances such as these.”
And while boycotts and outrage are warranted as countless marginalized groups face injustice and destructive manifestations of discriminatory behavior, it’s paramount that our entertainment doesn’t endanger or come at the expense of indigenous communities.