But for rivals in a tight U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, the “tomahawk chop” is the latest flashpoint in a campaign weighted with questions about which candidate is more credible.
This week, the Democrat-leaning Blue Mass Group posted video online showing staffers from Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s campaign performing the chop, along with war whoops and chants, while standing among supporters of challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Warren has made unverified claims of American Indian ancestry, and Brown has used that to question her trustworthiness and whether the Harvard professor used her claim for gain in the hyper-diversity-conscious academic world.
But after the video surfaced, Brown was on the defensive, and the chop was in the spotlight.
Warren said she was appalled, and the principal chief of Cherokee Nation called it “offensive and downright racist.” Others had more tempered reactions. Erny Zah, spokesman for the president’s office of the Navajo Nation, said, “The ignorance is just so blatantly obvious, it’s not really worth getting upset about.”
Even so, he added, it’s a clear mockery of Indian culture.
“Whether they’re trying to make fun of a political candidate ... or they’re rooting for their sports team, it’s based in ignorance,” Zah said.
The tomahawk chop is a rhythmic up-and-down motion made in time with a “war chant.” Florida State University takes credit for inventing the cheer, though it doesn’t call it the tomahawk chop, which is a term associated with the Braves.
Back in the mid-1980s, the Seminole football boosters asked a student spirit group, then called the Scalphunters, to create a cheer to compete with the University of Florida’s two-armed “Gator chomp,” said Florida State alum Tom Desjardin.
Desjardin, a Scalphunter, said that, for lack of a better idea, they debuted the chop at a 1984 pep rally he was leading. Florida State boosters say the famous chant was added later, on a suggestion from a student from Natick High School in Massachusetts, where the chant was used to support the school’s Redmen, a nickname since changed to the Red Hawks.
The chop really took off in a game at Auburn in 1985, when the Seminole band rolled out an intimidating drum beat and trumpet music to accompany it, said Desjardin, now a historian for the state of Maine.
Desjardin said the chop’s violent imagery wasn’t lost on the Scalphunters, but it wasn’t what drove its creation. A main consideration was the fact it was a shoulder-up motion that could be seen in a crowd, he said.
Desjardin added there’s a deep respect at Florida State for the Seminole tribe, which the school consults closely on all uses of tribal imagery and which in 2005 granted the school permission to use its name.
“If the tribe had ever said, ‘We don’t like that (the chop), you would have never seen it again,”‘ Desjardin said.
Instead, the chop spread to Atlanta. That city’s Seminole Booster Club claims credit for starting it all when some members used it at a Braves game to catch the attention of outfielder Deion Sanders, an FSU alum who began playing for Atlanta in 1991.
When the Braves made the World Series that year against Minnesota, American Indian groups protested in Minneapolis and Atlanta, saying the cheer perpetuated racist stereotypes of Native Americans as war-obsessed savages. Some called out Braves owner Ted Turner and his wife at the time, Jane Fonda, for doing the chop.
But former President Jimmy Carter defended it, saying it was a way to note that the team was emulating the courage of American Indians.
The cheer outlasted the furor, and in the two decades since has popped up in other places, to little controversy.
“I find it as encouraging to the Braves or the Seminoles,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who also managed in Miami. “Even on the other side. I was never offended by that.”
“It’s (the fans’) way of making the stadium loud and making it hard on the opposition,” said Braves reserve Eric Hinske. “It gets us jacked up.”
The Brown-Warren dustup has some people reconsidering the chop, but reactions to it will vary radically among American Indians, said Steven Denson, a member of Chickasaw Nation. He noted there are more than 500 tribes in the United States that speak their own language, and members are bound to view things differently.
For instance, “tomahawk” isn’t a Chickasaw word, so Denson wasn’t bothered when he watched Brown’s people doing the chop. But their mock chants and war whoops got to him. Authentic American Indian chants are often complex and freighted with tribal history, and Brown’s people didn’t respect that, he said.
“When I read about it, I thought, ‘Ah, politics.’ When I watched it, I started to get a little angry,” said Denson, director of diversity at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. Whether Warren has Indian blood or doesn’t, he said, “you respect the culture.”
“I think there’s a lot of ignorance and a lot of stupidity, when it comes to Indian country,” Denson said.