The Chop: It's a celebration, not a degradation

October 22, 1991|By Gerald Ensley | Gerald Ensley,Knight-Ridder

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Does anyone out there really believe today's Native Americans are "a bunch of savages who carry weapons and wear war paint all the time"?

Besides Clyde Bellecourt, national director of the American Indian Movement, who said last week the Florida State/Atlanta Braves tomahawk war chant is promoting that image?

Besides the 100 or so people who signed a petition last week to eliminate Halloween celebrations from Tallahassee schools?

Besides any predictable knee-jerkers who can't separate symbols from substance?

It may be pointless to spar with people who had a lobotomy on their common sense. But this insistence that war chants and tomahawk chops reflect badly on Native Americans is as misbegotten as the idea that jack-o'-lanterns and costumed witches inspire children to worship Satan.

In both cases, people are seeing ghosts where they don't exist.

This furor over the chop -- which produced protesters at the opening game of the World Series -- stems from the use of Native Americans as nicknames for sporting teams.

Native American organizations say the use of names like Indians, Braves and Redskins is derogatory to Native Americans -- although it's interesting that all those protest groups have "Indian" in their name.

(Which is similar to the belief that it's OK for one member of an ethnic group or race to use a racial insult to describe a member of the same group or race, while insisting the use of the word by anyone else perpetuates prejudice. That's a curious dichotomy if you want to eliminate such insulting terms from society. But then, we digress.)

Now, they have a point about names like Redskins, Redmen and Red Raiders. Perhaps it's time to eliminate those nicknames from sports. Nicknames based on the color of one's skin are tasteless, not to mention uninspiring.

But many other Native American nicknames are inspiring.

Braves, Chiefs, Warriors. Those terms celebrate positive characteristics. They connote courage, leadership and aggressiveness.

Seminoles, Chippewas, Cherokees. Those names honor specific tribes. They connote a pride about the heritage of a particular area.

All those specific nicknames speak to a noble past.

Not noble in the terrible wrongs that European settlers visited on Native Americans. But noble in the sense that Native Americans were proud, strong, self-reliant people -- which is not a bad image for anyone to emulate.

The war chant and tomahawk chop are extensions of that image. When confronted by enemies who wanted to destroy them, Native Americans in the past rallied with pow-wows and fought back with weapons.

And -- for better or worse -- sports teams have long viewed their games as metaphoric battles with foes out to destroy them. So when the fans of Native American-nicknamed teams whoop it up, they are merely play-acting in a historical vein.

And that's all it is: play-acting.

It's costuming, dancing and chanting in the spirit of entertainment. It's a celebration of the past.

Granted, it's a romantic past that does not fully represent the Native American past. But only idiots would think it remains the reality. No one believes today's Native Americans are warlike savages anymore than anyone believes today's cowboys are gunslingers.

Certainly, there is a need for education and awareness. For instance, there have been objections to the feathered headdresses worn by some Atlanta Braves fans.

"You wear a headdress only twice -- when you honor a loved one or when a loved on passes on," said Phil St. John, leader of a group called Concerned American Indian Parents.

In that sense, wearing such Native American adornments is sacrilegious -- as it would be for a non-Jewish person to wear a yarmulke to a ballgame. But is it sacrilegious for a non-Jewish person to toast a friend with a cry of "mazel tov"?

Not in this corner. One is a put-down of an ethnic background, the other is a sharing of that ethnic background. One is affront to the substance of a group, the other is a celebration of a group's symbols.

And that's what sports fans who cheer in imitation of Native Americans are doing: Sharing and celebrating.

Who can that be hurting?

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