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The Covington Teens’ Racist ‘Tomahawk Chop’ Is The Product Of Native Mascotry

By now we’ve all seen the viral video of the students from Covington Catholic High School standing near the Lincoln Memorial harassing a Native American man last Friday.

The students (most of whom are white and male and wearing those easily recognizable red “Make America Great Again” hats) were in the nation’s capital to participate in the annual anti-abortion March for Life. Nathan Phillips, a member of the Omaha Nation, was singing an American Indian Movement protest song and banging drums with a group of fellow Natives. They were in D.C. for their own political rally, the first Indigenous Peoples March.

The most viral part of the videos shows one student in particular, Nick Sandmann, a white kid in one those red hats, standing directly in front of Phillips. Sandmann remains still and quiet, a smile on his face as he stares Phillips down, his classmates egging him on, as Phillips continues to play his drum and sing.

Sandmann, in a statement he released, said that “because we were being loudly attacked and taunted in public [by Hebrew Israelites], a student in our group asked one of our teacher chaperones for permission to begin our school spirit chants to counter the hateful things that were being shouted at our group. The chants are commonly used at sporting events.”

The students easily go from “chants” they normally do at “sporting events” to a mocking version of the song Phillips and others are singing. Of course they did; sports fandom taught them to do that.

That they could slip so easily from their own fandom experiences at school to the mockery of Native song is a condemnation on sport.

One student in a video does the “tomahawk chop,” an arm movement begun by the crowds at a Florida State Seminoles football game in the 1980s. It makes sense that this teenager in 2019 felt this was a good moment to do the chop because it was created to accompany the “war chant” FSU fans do at games, which, according to FSU, was originally called “Massacre” and “sounded more like chants by American Indians in Western movies.” (The history of depictions of Native peoples in Hollywood films is problematic, to say the least.)

The mockery of the moment on Friday was thrown into sharp relief on Sunday evening, when the New England Patriots played the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. The crowds there long ago adopted the chop and the war chant, and anyone watching the broadcast saw and heard them both repeatedly during the game.

What really is the difference between what happened on Friday and what happened on Sunday, except that the students did it directly in the face of a Native man? (However, plenty of sports fans have done it to Native people’s faces when Native protesters have stood outside sporting events to draw attention to the use of racist mascots.) 

When we normalize mockery of Native Americans, we make other forms of racism commonplace offenses. And sporting events become



When we normalize mockery of Native Americans, we make other forms of racism commonplace offenses. And sporting events become the place where it all goes down.

Native mascotry (a term coined by Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux, co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, and co-creator of the hashtag #NotYourMascot) is wrong and needs to end.

Native mascotry is the most-repeated image of Native people in this country. It is the product of a long, horrific history in which the government of the United States has committed genocide against Native peoples, stolen their lands from them (often through forced removal), forced their children into schools with the intent to eradicate them of their Native culture and entered into treaties with Native nations and then broken those treaties whenever they became at all inconvenient.

The government of this country has spent centuries trying to erase Native people, and Native mascotry only continues this practice. Native mascots flatten Native people into images of floating heads and the sound of a manufactured chant. It strips them of humanity and literally makes them caricatures. And it hurts Native people.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association “called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations.” The APA did so because, 14 years ago, there was “a growing body of social science literature” that showed “the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.”

Covington students treated Native people the way we all do when we defend or participate in Native mascotry.

This also has a direct impact on Native athletes. Native kids are taunted on the sports field and punished when they report it. Less than a week before the Covington boys mocked and intimidated Native people near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Lyle Thompson, a member of the Onondaga Nation and a lacrosse superstar in the National Lacrosse League, reported that the announcer for the other team repeatedly said over the loudspeaker, “let’s snip the ponytail,” referring to Thompson’s hair. Some fans, Thompson said, told him they were going to scalp him.

Is your mascot worth that?

Thinking back on Sandmann’s statement, one wonders what the students of Covington imagine when they participate in chants “commonly used at sporting events.” That they could slip so easily from their own fandom experiences at Covington to the mockery of Native song is a condemnation on sport, both their own local version of it and the one so many of us participate in on the collegiate and professional levels.

It matters, also, that this moment between these students and Phillips took place in Washington. Eleven miles from the Lincoln Memorial is FedExField, where the Washington NFL team plays. The team name is a slur against Native American people (and I won’t repeat it here). We have so normalized native mascotry that there are staunch defenders of a racist slur for a team that plays mere miles from the place where federal legislation is debated and passed in this country. That’s appalling.

Videos dating back to 2011 surfaced this week (and have since been deleted) that featured white Covington students at basketball games with their faces and bodies painted black. Is that really all that surprising? When we normalize mockery of Native Americans, we make other forms of racism commonplace offenses. And sporting events become the place where it all goes down.

Covington students, near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Friday, treated Native people, ones they were looking directly in the face, the way we all do when we defend or participate in Native mascotry. If you were upset or embarrassed by what you saw in those videos, consider how normal that behavior is in a football or baseball stadium. For all the condemnation directed at those teenagers (and rightly so), we have to also be willing to acknowledge how our culture at large, especially our sporting culture, contributes to what we saw this weekend.

Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified the Covington Catholic High School student involved as Nathan Sandmann. His name is Nick Sandmann.




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