Is the Tomahawk Chop racist? Depends who you ask

Photo by Jeremey Theron Kirby

You’re standing in a crowd of 76,000 red-shirted Chiefs fans at Arrowhead. The banging of the drum starts, and you perform the familiar gesture and chant known as the tomahawk chop.

Look around and you’ll find a few fans, hands in pockets, choosing not to participate in the Chiefs tradition. That’s because it’s seen by some to be offensive to Native Americans.

In October, the chop made headlines during the MLB series between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. Ryan Helsley, a relief pitcher for the Cardinals and member of the Cherokee Nation, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the tomahawk chop is “a misrepresentation of Native Americans” and that it “depicts them in this kind of caveman-type-people way who aren’t intellectual.”

After the statement, Atlanta’s SunTrust Park stopped distribution of foam tomahawks and didn’t play tomahawk music or graphics on the jumbotrons.

Will the Chiefs face similar scrutiny over the tomahawk chop in the playoffs?

Eric Anderson, professor of Indigenous and American Indian studies at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, says the Chiefs could face similar criticism during the playoffs.

“There’s a tendency for people, non-Native people in particular, to think of this as fairly innocuous,” says Anderson, a member of the Potawatomi Nation. “Some of this thinking has become so institutionalized that we don’t even really stop to try to unpack it.”

Anderson says the tomahawk, historically, is merely a weapon and suspects that the chop is a nod to battles in indigenous societies, albeit one that distorts views of indigenous people.

The tomahawk chop started with Florida State, which was granted permission from the Seminole Tribe to partake in the chant and other such rituals. In the early 1990s, FSU alumni brought the chop to both the Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Chiefs.

Cody Morton, Chiefs fan and member of South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota Nation, says the tomahawk chop doesn’t bother him. He does, however, feel that the controversial name of the Washington NFL franchise and the old mascot of the Cleveland Indians are offensive.

Morton says the issues with Native American depictions in sports culture is minor compared to problems his people face, pointing out that Native American women are murdered at a rate ten times higher than the national average.

“We don’t focus all our attention on sports logos or radicalizing everything that comes along,” Morton says. “My family’s main focus is real-life human issues.”

While this conversation continues, there are tens of thousands of KC fans who will keep chopping despite controversy. Daryl Ash has been outspoken on fan forums about his intent to keep chopping.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s freedom of speech,” he says. “It’s not for hatred. It’s for celebration and supporting your Chiefs family and friends and our team.”

Anderson, the Haskell professor, hopes that Chiefs PR is prepared for national eyes.

“I would assume — and maybe I shouldn’t — that an outfit like that has enough media savvy and competent PR and social media folks that they at least have some front-line preparation,” he says.

Anderson believes that if fans knew the impact it had on Native Americans, they would tone down tomahawk chops, war whoops, war paint and headdresses.

“I think people, at their hearts, are good,” Anderson says. “They really don’t want to do something that they feel is going to hurt other people.”

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