Sports

The Surprising Origins of the “Tomahawk Chop” Music

A fan holds a sign stating "the chop is racist."
A baseball fan has a correct opinion. Bob Levey/Getty Images

The “tomahawk chop,” the arm-waving gesture and faux Native American chant performed by fans of the Atlanta Braves and other teams, is the biggest story in Major League Baseball. Last week, Commissioner Rob Manfred claimed, falsely, that the “Native American community in that region” is “wholly supportive” of the chop. Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, performed it in a suite at Truist Park before Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday. And critics, as they have consistently since the chop was first performed in Atlanta 30 years ago, asserted that it, and other Native American mascots, iconography, and caricatures, are inherently racist and psychologically damaging. In Slate last week, David Pincus called the chop “a plague.”

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The chop is an ensemble racist act. The music, chant, and hand motion all make contributions. The chant and motion began at Florida State University, whose teams are named the Seminoles, after the Native tribe. According to a 2012 thread on the FSU message board Tomahawk Nation, a fraternity member named Rob Hill began the ritual at a 1983 football game, accompanying a repetitive drum beat from the marching band with what the message board poster called a “traditional singing of an Indian war chant.” The hand motion, he wrote, was added spontaneously. The next year, fraternity members demonstrated the chant and chop at a pep rally by a student group called the Scalphunters. (Yes, the Scalphunters.) By 1985, thousands of fans were doing the chop at FSU football games.

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The musical component of the chop, however, dates back much further. The drum beat being played by the Florida State band, the Marching Chiefs, when the frat brother started chanting in 1983 was likely one of its regular pieces, “Massacre.” Yes, “Massacre.”

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According to a Florida State alumni page, the marching band would chant the melody of “Massacre” as far back as the 1960s. The tune itself isn’t identical to the chant that now accompanies the chop, but you can hear the roots there. Much closer to the current iteration, but again not identical, is “War Chant,” which was performed by the University of Illinois marching band starting in the 1970s.

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After Florida State students started performing the chop, the school’s marching band composed its own slower and more straightforward “War Chant.” In a 1991 story in the Atlanta Constitution, the organist for the Atlanta Braves, Carolyn King, said she had begun playing that tune a couple of years earlier—pre-Atlanta chop—“because it sounded as if it would go with a team called the Braves.”

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In a 2012 blog post, an indie band named Los Doggies deconstructed the music:

With quick melodic turns of a pentatonic key, and a big brassy timbre or anthemic chanting, the melody could easily invoke any exotic place or people, but it is the duple meter—the backing beat of a “HUY-yuh-yuh-yuh” or an oogachaka with extra ooh—that gives it that authentic buffalo tom-tom Native Americany sound.

The chant, Los Doggies wrote, “captures the spirit of a nation (or the melodic mocking of a minority).”

Melodies like those in “Massacre” and “War Chant” emerged in the late 19th and early-20th centuries, when white musicologists identified and catalogued Native American sounds and white composers used them in song as part of “the romanticizing of the Indian in the popular mind.” (Similarly, the name “Braves” was adopted by the team, then in Boston, in 1912. Cleveland’s baseball team began calling itself the “Indians” in 1915.) You can hear the roots of the chop melody and deliberate nods at Native American drumming in this 1908 recording, “Indian Intermezzo.”

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But the closest historical source for the chop accompaniment isn’t “Indian Intermezzo,” the Illinois band’s “War Chant,” or the Florida State band’s “Massacre.” It’s the theme song from a cartoon.

The song is “Pow Wow the Indian Boy,” from the black-and-white short “Adventures of Pow Wow.” According to the website Toon Tracker, “Adventures of Pow Wow” first appeared on television in New York in 1949 and was a regular feature on the children’s show Captain Kangaroo in the mid-1950s and later in syndication. The song was written by Monty Kelly, who had his own band—“Summer Set” by Monty Kelly and His Orchestra and Chorus hit No. 30 on the Billboard chart in 1960—and also wrote for TV and the movies.

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Tom Kacich of the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette noticed the connection between “Pow Wow the Indian Boy” and the tomahawk chop music in 2017. Kacich was writing about the chop on the occasion of the University of Illinois ceasing to play “War Chant” at university events because of complaints that it was offensive. (The university had retired its Native-garbed mascot, Chief Illiniwek, a decade earlier.) “That so-called ‘war chant’ that has so many Illinois sports fans emotional is time-honored,” Kacich wrote, “but perhaps not in the way you think.” A newspaper database search reveals that Kacich wasn’t the first to make this observation. In 1993, an Atlanta Constitution reader, Jane Hammond, told the paper that the chop music was the same as the cartoon theme song.

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The 43 episodes of “Adventures of Pow Wow,” among them “Pow Wow and the Li’l Medicine Man” and “Pow Wow and the Magic Moccasins,” supposedly were based on Indian folklore but are, as might be expected, uncomfortable to watch, in a racist way. “Adventures of Pow Wow” was so bad, on so many levels, that it was included in Worst Cartoons Ever!, a 2007 DVD by animation historian Jerry Beck.

Instead of continuing to perform a “war chant” rooted in stereotypes popularized more than a century ago, fans in Atlanta and Tallahassee and wherever else it’s still being done might benefit from listening to actual music created by Native American tribes that were forcibly relocated by the United States government in the mid-19th century.

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“They are taking us beyond Miami, they are taking us beyond the Caloosa River,” read the lyrics in that recording, “Songs Concerning the Removal of the Seminole to Oklahoma.” “They are taking us to the end of our tribe.”

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