Pride vs. Prejudice: Put the Tomahawk Chop to Rest
by Betsy Theobald Richards (Cherokee Nation), The Opportunity Agenda
This Sunday will be the height of team pride for Kansas City Chiefs fans as their team takes on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. When cameras pan to the audience in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, it is expected that fans will be chopping the air in unison to a crude rhythmic chant, some with painted faces and headdresses, doing, as they say, the Tomahawk Chop. Unfortunately, the “chop” is among the countless displays of damaging mockery of Native peoples that Indigenous groups have been working to eradicate from the face of sports for decades. Raising awareness and offering tools for change at this Super Bowl, which is a national stage in front of approximately 3 million viewers, is critical.
Dignity, respect, and voice are at the heart of the movement against Native American imagery and mascots in sports. In 2018, I had the honor of serving as part of the team that co-led the ground-breaking 2018 public opinion research study Reclaiming Native Truth, which examined the profound effects of negative, persistent narratives that “harm the self-esteem and aspirations of Native Americans — especially children…reinforcing negative stereotypes among non-Native people, shaping how they think and act…and justifying oppressive practices and laws, and historic and systemic racism.” The research confirmed that despite widespread misunderstanding and invisibility of Native people, and suppression of Native voices, “there is a broad, diverse audience that is ready for this new narrative and ready to engage as allies.”
Many Indigenous rights groups such as the National Congress of American Indians and Suzan Shown Harjo’s Morning Star Institute have been working for decades to fight Native racism in sports, including lobbying to change the offensive name of the Washington football team and a recent win in getting the Cleveland Indians to retire Chief Wahoo as their harmful mascot. These social justice leaders have been fighting not just because of offense, but because, among other disturbing statistics, Native people have the highest per capita suicide rates of any racial/ethnic group in the country and is critical to get at the root causes of despair and oppression.
To add irony, the internet has been abuzz about Planter’s Super Bowl advertisement this year, which will gather the world together around the death of their mascot, Mr. Peanut, while sports fans fight to keep the Tomahawk Chop alive. In a society where mascots are given such cultural attention, isn’t it time that we rethink the perpetuation of damaging Native mascots and take action?
The moment is now, for all Americans, not just Native citizens like myself, to call out why mascots and harmful imagery need to be retired from our national consciousness and conversation. Instead of #RIPeanut on social media, focus on using #StoptheChop, #TheChopisRacist, #InsteadofRedface and #NotYourMascot. Visit the National Congress of American Indians, IllumiNative, Reclaiming Native Truth, and NotYourMascots.org for useful resources on changing narratives and taking action to stop the harmful effects of these practices.
Lastly, especially if you are attending or watching the Super Bowl, take a moment to acknowledge that Hard Rock Stadium in Miami is on the traditional homeland of the Seminole Nation. Give thanks to them and to the elders and citizens of the over 560 sovereign Native Nations in the country. Give thanks to their stewardship of this land we call the United States of America. May we look to a better future with pride, not prejudice, for us all.