War Chant and Tomahawk Chop: From Seminoles to Republicans (via Braves, Diddy, and a 40-Foot Cow)
This week, the most eye-catching story in Indian country was the reaction to a video coming out of Massachusetts showing staffers for the campaign of incumbent Senator Scott Brown (R) taunting his opponent, Elizabeth Warren (D) with stereotypical Indian "war whoops" and antics known well to sports fans as the "tomahawk chop" and "war chant."
The tomahawk chop and "war chant" have long been associated with the Florida State University football team, called the Seminoles, after the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Unlike most Native-derived mascots, Florida State's Seminole is officially sanctioned by the tribe. In 2005, the university was granted a waiver from the NCAA, which has sought to eliminate Native mascots, on the basis of this "unique relationship." NCAA senior vice president Bernard Franklin said in a statement that "The decision of a namesake sovereign tribe, regarding when and how its name and imagery can be used, must be respected even when others may not agree."
And indeed others do not agree. Reacting to that 2005 decision, David Narcomey, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma's general council, told USA Today that he was "deeply appalled, incredulously disappointed ... I am nauseated that the NCAA is allowing this 'minstrel show' to carry on this form of racism in the 21st century."
The football team's mascot is named for a historical figure, Chief Osceola, and he wears accurate (and tribe-approved) period dress and rides an appaloosa horse named Renegade. It was not always thus, though -- previous mascots for the team included Sammy Seminole, Chief Fullabull, Chief Wampumstompum, and Yahola. The less cartoonish Chief Osceola made his debut in 1978.
A Slate article says the "tomahawk chop" likely dates to the early 1980s; the official Florida State University athletics website specificies a 1984 football game against Auburn in which the Seminoles' 1960s cheer, "massacre" was shortened and repeated ad infinitum. This is now known as the Seminoles' "war chant;" the tomahawk chop was adopted either simultaneously or soon after. Here's a video made by a fan at a game in Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee about a year ago:
The tomahawk chop spread to the Atlanta Braves in 1991, when Deion Sanders, a Florida State standout in football, began playing baseball for the Braves. Braves fans added foam-rubber tomahawks, as the following video from 1991 explains. Note that the Braves also co-opted FSU's war chant:
Since 2008, even the Chick-Fil-A cow does the Chop at Turner Field:
The famously liberal Jane Fonda, who was dating Braves owner Ted Turner at the time, befuddled observers when she did the chop in 1991. "What I couldn't understand was how Miss Progressive Jane Fonda could sit there doing the Tomahawk Chop," Tonya Gonella Frichner, Onondaga, president of the American Indian Law Alliance, told the New York Times in 1991. Frichner concluded that "It's power. ... You can say anything you want about Indians; they don't have enough votes to matter." The Times article quoted Aaron Two Elk of Atlanta, the regional director of the American Indian Movement, as having called the gesture "dehumanizing, derogatory and very unethical." A representative from a group called the Concerned American Indian Parents said that "It hurts to see these white boys in the bleachers singing and chanting like that."
"These white boys" have grown up, and now remember their Braves baseball -- chants, chops, and all -- with fondness, and that 1991 season in particular is recalled as the one that kicked off a decade and a half of Braves dominance in the National League. A popular band known as the Black Lips consists of four grown-up white-boy Braves fans; in a complete coincidence, a Creative Loafing Atlanta interview with band member Cole Alexander published this week focused largely on the band's passion for their hometown team. In fact, Cole said, the band occasionally plays the "war chant" at concerts to get the crowd "really riled up" -- here's a video from a show in Atlanta where the audience does the full-on chant and chop:
The Black Lips also recorded a song about the Braves' mascot "Noc-A-Homa" (fake-Indian-ese for "Knock a Homer"), which was retired in 1986 due to public outcry. Noc-A-Homa occupied a tepee on a platform inside the stadium; when an Atlanta player hit a home run, he would emerge and do a dance. The song's lyrics and video are said to be sympathetic to Noc-A-Homa, or the real-life person (whoever it was) who portrayed him -- judge for yourself. Note that at the end of the video, Noc-A-Homa does a little chopping himself.
The "war chant" associated with the tomahawk chop is different from the "war whoop" that children inevitably (and regrettably) learn when they play cowboys and Indians -- both can be heard in the Scott Brown Tomahawk Chop video; the ow-ow-ow-ow-ow war whoop can also be heard in an earlier video in which Brown supporters played a prank on Elizabeth Warren. There is also a classic bluegrass instrumental called "Indian War Whoop" that was featured in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?:
Your guess is as good as ours as to what that piece of music has to do with Indians, war or whooping. Finally, the trio of Sean "Diddy" Combs, Nelly, and Murphy Lee made a 2003 single, "Shake Ya Tailfeather," based partially on the Florida State "war chant" -- in the ridiculous video below, there is all sorts of gesturing and dancing but, remarkably, not a single tomahawk chop.