Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
This piece carries a content warning for racism and racist slurs.
51 years ago, the Kansas City NFL team won the Super Bowl for the first time. They did not do the Tomahawk Chop, that “beloved tradition” that fans will tell you is so integral to their gameday ritual; the Chop didn’t even exist in its current form. They did, however, have a mascot: A paint horse named Warpaint, ridden by a man in full faux-Native regalia named Bob Johnson, who would circle the field at Municipal Stadium every time his team scored a touchdown. It’s hard to find any evidence of the kinds of chants he was leading, but it’s not hard to imagine that they at least bore passing resemblance to the Chop — since, after all, they were most likely drawn from the exact kind of racist parody that chant has crystallized.
Even in the early ‘70s when Johnson and Warpaint did their first rounds of press, there was some semiconsciousness that this new tradition — the brainchild of the team’s owner, Lamar Hunt, a master marketer best known for coining the term “Super Bowl” — was not quite acceptable. Newspaper articles noted that Johnson was “part Osage” or “part Sioux” (for some reason, it changed), making him (according to them) well-suited to the task.
Warpaint retired with Johnson in 1989, and then was revived in 2009 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the AFC. Now she’s ridden by a white woman cheerleader named Susie, who leads her around the stadium while fans do the Tomahawk Chop.
The Chop has become one of the most stubborn relics of the sports world’s blithe attitude towards appropriating and caricaturing Indigenous culture. The Chop and the Chiefs and the Braves and all the other team names and logos and “traditions” that explicitly or not hinge on age-old stereotypes of America’s first people, the survivors of a centuries-long genocide perpetrated by the ancestors of many of the people cheering for those teams, has always been criticized — whether that criticism was heard or not.
As the Black Lives Matter movement sparks long-overdue mainstream conversations about racism and systemic discrimination — conversations that finally prompted the Washington Football Team to abandon the anti-Native slur that had served as its name for almost a century — the Chop and the less-obviously grotesque of the team names and logos linger. The NFL has made a point of performatively, at least, acknowledging the need for proactive anti-racism. But the resulting slogans and actions have only really served to highlight their hypocrisy, especially when it comes to Native culture. The Kansas City team, for example, printed “#EndRacism” in the endzone right above where they had printed “Chiefs,” as journalist and activist Rhonda LeValdo points out.
LeValdo, an Acoma Pueblo woman, co-founded the Kansas City-based Not In Our Honor Coalition, an organization dedicated to protesting Native mascots, names and imagery, in 2005. LeValdo and her fellow Not In Our Honor members have protested outside Kansas City games since then; they’re flipped off, cussed out, and generally made to feel unsafe. But she and her fellow protesters see the Kansas City team name as just as urgently offensive as Washington’s was. For her, having lived in the Kansas City area since 1995, the team’s caricatures are inescapable — in spite of the fact that she doesn’t watch football.
“A lot of the pushback we get is like, ‘Well, why don’t you just turn off the television, if you don’t want to watch it?’” she says. “But you hear the Chop in ads on the radio, ads on television — it’s everywhere. People randomly will break out in it. One time I was at a concert, and people started doing it.”
Opinion editor @cjjanovy speaks with @rhondalevaldo and suggests listening to the people who’ve spent 15 years protesting the Kansas City NFL team’s name. https://t.co/rgNhrHVPCZ pic.twitter.com/enaAOJTJqU
— Kansas Reflector (@KansasReflector) January 25, 2021
The Chop has escaped universal censure for some of the same reasons the Kansas City team is still called the Chiefs. “Chief” is a term with inoffensive meanings outside its significance in Native culture, which makes it easier for the team to ignore criticism; over the years, it has wiped its game day rituals of anything that might overtly recall Indigeonous people — most recently, by banning fans sporting headdresses and face paint that caricature Native culture (a ban that it is not clear will be enforced at the Super Bowl this Sunday).
The Chop slides under the wire since it doesn’t have words; its melody can be traced not to a traditional Indigeonous song, but to the Florida State University Marching…Chiefs. It is cartoonish enough that those who practice it can claim that it’s hardly related to Indigeonous culture at all, a claim that’s easy enough to debunk by looking at its history.
Dr. Bill Faucett was the drum major of the FSU Marching Chiefs in 1983 and 1984, around the time when the Chop — known at FSU as the War Chant — as it’s currently performed, was created. He’s written a book on the storied history of the band, The Marching Chiefs of Florida State University: The Band That Never Lost a Halftime Show, and traces the roots of the current chant back to the 1950s and, specifically, a then-popular fan chant called “Sittin’ In A Wigwam:”
Sittin’ in a wigwam
Beatin’ on a tom-tom
Who come, we come
Everybody will come
Scalp ‘em, scalp ‘em
That era’s Marching Chiefs wrote a melody for the chant, and it was performed for over a decade; the FSU website does not name the chant, referring to it only as “a popular FSU cheer.” Its wordless revival in the mid-’80s was, by all accounts, spontaneous; then-assistant drum major Dr. Rodney Dorsey recalls it beginning as a collaboration between the tuba section, who played the melody, the drum line, playing a more complex version of the faux-”tribal” beat that the Chiefs have incorporated into their pregame routine, and the ROTC (the website cites the fraternity section as the originator). It took off, becoming a Florida State hallmark and — within the next decade — a fixture of professional sports, namely the Kansas City NFL team and the Atlanta MLB team.
Florida State has long used its close relationship with the local Seminole Tribal Council as an inoculation against criticism for both the War Chant and its use of the Seminole team name and mascot. In fact, when the NCAA banned Native-inspired team names and mascots in 2005, the school was granted a waiver because of that relationship. But other branches of the Seminoles, namely the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma — where the majority of Seminole people live — don’t condone the use of their tribe’s name and history in sports.
“You don’t see any kind of silliness or mockery of a Seminole — it’s highly, highly regimented, and very dignified, which is why the Seminoles and FSU have such a great partnership,” says Faucett. “We’re in interesting times, and I certainly wouldn’t want any cheer that we’re doing — or that’s being done anywhere — to be offensive. On the other hand, I think as people are doing this on a Saturday afternoon, they don’t have a clue about that…It’s a tradition, right?”
For Dorsey, who became the FSU band’s first Black drum major shortly after the chant was revived, the question of its offensiveness is a complicated one. Currently the chair of the department of bands at Indiana University, he also notes that plenty of college bands around the country play pieces that sound similar (but are less iconic), and are likely rooted in the same kind of caricature.
“If you look back, the head drum majors, we wore, like, full headdresses — and Seminole Indians don’t wear headdresses,” says Dorsey. “What the Chiefs are doing now, especially in terms of uniform and costuming is so much more culturally appropriate than when I was in school. I’m like, how did we even get away with it?”
“I think we need to keep having conversations with the Seminole Indian tribe, or the people that are most affected by it,” he concludes. “If there’s one generation that is okay with it, well, maybe another generation might not be as okay with it. And if we don’t keep checking in and talking about it, we just won’t know.”
For the Kansas City and Atlanta teams, there are some similar councils and working groups including Indigeonous people that seem to exist mostly for the purposes of rationalizing the status quo. These groups hinge on the idea that one person (or even a small group) who identifies with a particular demographic is an effective representative of every single other person who identifies with that demographic — or the idea, as the existence of several polls suggests, that deciding whether something is racist is a majority-rules situation, rather than a question of broader principle. “I always tell people, you’re either racist, or you’re not,” says LeValdo. “You can’t say, ‘We’re just gonna be a little racist, still do the chop and bang the drum or whatever.’ It’s still racist. ‘Honor’ us in a different way.”
That’s why LeValdo and her colleagues in Not In Our Honor have been protesting all these years, why they’re trying to use the Super Bowl to draw attention to their cause with petitions, billboards and flyovers, why they’re pleading with CBS not to show the Chop during the biggest American television event of the year, why Kansas public schools are urging teachers to think about the potential impact of pre-Super Bowl activities on students. There is a clear line, and the Kansas City NFL team has repeatedly crossed it; they continue to cross it as Indigeonous populations suffer disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic, as the team’s ownership, the Hunt family, has seen their fortune grow by $482 million during that same pandemic.
That’s why LeValdo is driving to Tampa — a stone’s throw from the Seminole Nation of Florida, ironically — to continue her protest, joining an action organized by local grassroots group Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality. Alicia Norris, one of the group’s organizers, has been getting non-stop threatening calls since announcing the protest, which is scheduled to take place on Sunday just outside Raymond James Stadium — the high security and heavy police and FBI presence, though, are making the logistics difficult. If 40 or 50 people come, she’ll be satisfied.
“Indigenous people have been speaking up for a long time, even though they haven’t been heard,” Norris concludes. “The survival mode that a lot of people are in and the Third World conditions many of us live in have an impact on our ability to unite. Just because you’re hearing this for the first time doesn’t mean it hasn’t been offensive this whole time. It has.”