The History of the Covington MAGA Teens’ Racist ‘Tomahawk Chop’
The chant has been a staple of pro and amateur sports for decades—much to the ire of Native Americans.
Amidst all the ref-working, bad faith arguments, false equivalencies, and targeted attacks on reporters by the far right since videos showing a group of teens from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky hooting, jeering, and mocking a Native American elder were made public, one piece of evidence can’t be hand-waved away or pettifogged until the truth is unrecognizable: the Tomahawk Chop.
In multiple videos, the students—some of whom, prior to gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, were allegedly howling “MAGA!” at random female passers-by—can be seen engaging in the familiar chant, bringing their arm downward as if wielding a tomahawk while belting out a crude version of traditional Native American songs. Fans of the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, Florida State University, and numerous high schools with Native American mascots have been chopping away for decades. But make no mistake: The chant in and of itself is considered a slur by Native Americans and advocacy groups have plaintively asked sports teams to stop rubber-stamping this behavior since it first gained prominence.
The Daily Beast contacted representatives of three pro teams and FSU to see if they cared to comment now that the chant is openly being used to taunt and ridicule an indigenous person, or whether they intended to discourage their fans from doing so going forward. No American teams responded prior to publication. A spokesman for the Exeter Chiefs, an English pro rugby team that has adopted the Tomahawk Chop, said via email: “Exeter Rugby Club have no comment to make on this matter.”
Amanda Blackhorse, a member of the Diné tribe and founder of the group Arizona To Rally Against Native Mascots, saw the silence by the aforementioned teams as both predictable and deafening. “They need to be called out,” she said when reached by phone.
Blackhorse is all-too-familiar with the struggle to get pro teams with Native mascots to actually listen to indigenous people. For over 10 years, Blackhorse spearheaded a lawsuit in an attempt to force the Washington Redskins to ditch their racist slur of a nickname. (Initially, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office agreed, removing the team’s trademark protections, but the Supreme Court overturned the decision in 2017.)
She’d spent the weekend in Washington, D.C. participating in the Indigenous Peoples March, calling for action on a slew of issues pertaining to Native Americans—though she was not present when Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Vietnam-era veteran and elder, says he tried to diffuse the tension between the Covington Catholic students and the Black Hebrew Israelites. True to form, the Black Hebrew Israelites were spewing their own particular toxic mix of conspiracy theories and prejudiced nonsense.
The irony, though, was striking to Blackhorse. That their protest was held “in a place where the team is called literally a racial slur, and we’re there, asking for visibility when we’re really not visible,” she said, “It just reiterates how much we are discounted.”
Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Navajo tribe, journalist, and author, is currently in Covington, Kentucky, hoping to gain an audience with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington. By phone, she explained that people of color are constantly forced to consider the impact of their speech, behavior, and even clothing, especially when they find themselves in majority-white spaces. That the Covington Catholic students seemingly never wondered if the Tomahawk Chop or their MAGA hats would provoke a response in a diverse city far from their Kentucky home cuts to the very definition of white privilege.
While she made it clear that she unequivocally supported their right to free expression, “the idea that young white men would be expected to think about how they conduct themselves is not an extreme request,” Keeler said.
Nor was Blackhorse surprised that some of the boys immediately thought of the Tomahawk Chop when face-to-face with a Native American, possibly for the first time. She cited a 2008 study conducted by Stephanie Fryberg examining the impact of Native American stereotypes in popular culture. In the study, Native youths were exposed to stereotypical images of native people, including sports mascots. The result? Native youths saw a dramatic decrease in self-esteem while the converse was true for non-Natives. A 2014 study by the Center for American Progress came to a similar conclusion. “[Non-Natives] think it’s fun. They think it’s a part of sports,” Blackhorse said. “[Native Americans] suffer the consequences.”
She continued: “Native people have been calling for the end of the Tomahawk Chop for decades. This is not something new.”
It isn’t. Though it may seem as if the chant has been a permanent fixture in sports culture, it only dates back to the early 1980s, when the FSU marching band came up with the idea. Another FSU alumnus and historian ascribed its origin to an FSU booster group called the “Scalphunters” who invented the chant as a counter to rival the University of Florida’s “Gator chomp.”
Instead, the site outlines the ways in which the school has transitioned away from openly cartoonish and offensive mascots, and has worked in conjunction with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to maintain a sense of “dignity and propriety” and “celebrat[e] diversity.” On Martin Luther King Day, FSU briefly tweeted out a manipulated image portraying Dr. King as if he were joining in on the Tomahawk Chop. It was quickly deleted, and the school subsequently apologized.
The Atlanta Braves were next to take up the chant in 1991, when star cornerback Deion Sanders decided to try his hand at baseball. (Sanders attended—but did not graduate from—FSU, and so during spring training a group of fans imported the FSU chant as a way of welcoming him into the fold.) The chant caught on. Fans began bringing toy tomahawks into the stadium, and the team’s marketing department decided to get in on this potential gravy train, selling foam rubber red tomahawks by the boatload. Still, the trend might have died on the vine, but after years of futility, the Braves won their first division title since 1969. When they reached the World Series, the Tomahawk Chop was given a national spotlight.
As Blackhorse noted, Native American groups took umbrage, but the team ignored them, per The New York Times, insisting the chant was “a proud expression of unification and family.” Amazingly, even former President Jimmy Carter, a long-time Braves fan, glibly dismissed the protesters’ complaints.
“With the Braves on top, we have a brave, courageous and successful team, and I think we can look on the American Indians as brave, successful and attractive,” Carter said. “So I don’t look on it as an insult.”
This line of argument has been very much the norm for teams when confronted about the use of these tired racial stereotypes. Because no insult is intended and scores of fans consider Native mascots a beloved part of their shared traditions—seriously—it’s Native Americans who are making outlandish demands. Daniel Snyder, the Washington Redskins owner, incessantly defended the team’s legacy, as if being founded by an out-and-out racist were a point of pride.
Similarly, the Cleveland Indians would hammer away about “tradition” when defending the ongoing existence of their grinning, red-faced caricature of a logo, Chief Wahoo. Wahoo finally will be removed from Cleveland’s official uniform next season, but the team will continue to offer Chief Wahoo-branded merchandise for sale, because of course they will.
Anyway, back in 1991, Kansas City Chiefs fans got giddy at the popularity of the Tomahawk Chop and jumped on the bandwagon. Of late, the team has consulted with indigenous groups on how they might transition away from some of the more derogatory imagery and language. But the Chiefs have yet to formally ban the wearing of Native American garb by fans at the stadium, let alone the Tomahawk Chop. (Arrowhead Stadium cranks the accompanying music up to full blast whenever the chant kicks into gear.) In 2014, Blackhorse told kansascity.com it would be impossible to eradicate the cosplaying. The nickname by definition was a diminishment of Native culture, and the only solution is to get rid of it altogether.
To her point, on Sunday night, while the images of the jeering students were still reverberating, Kansas City was locked in a thrilling back-and-forth AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. When CBS’ cameras panned to the crowd, they routinely captured 76,000-plus diehards Tomahawk Chop-ing to beat the band.
What still lingers for Blackhorse is the expression on Nicholas Sandmann’s face. (With the help of a top-shelf crisis PR firm, Sandmann denied he bore any animus toward Phillips.)
It’s one she’s encountered while protesting outside the Redskins home stadium. Fans, when they’re not hurling epithets or splattering her with beer, will simply smile, confident that Native Americans’ justifiable outrage can be dismissed entirely. The idea they’d face any kind of backlash is beyond their imagination. And even if their behavior was met with condemnation, powerful forces would stand by their side
“That smirk on that boy’s face was the face I’ve seen thousands of times,” said Blackhorse. “They know they’re doing something wrong; they just don’t care.”