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Department of State

New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs

The Hon. Tahesha Way, Secretary of State
New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs

The Meaning behind Indian Heads, Tomahawk Chops, and Other Racist, Demoralizing Logos and Images in American Culture: Massacre and Myth

By Eileen De Freece, PhD
Ramapough Lenape Nation
Commissioner, New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs

For well over a hundred years, Native American leaders and activists have rejected the use of the Indian Head, as well as other images as logos for schools, sports teams, advertisers, and even coins. The question is this: why are these symbols insulting, disparaging, horrific to Native American communities? What do they signify historically that continue to have a negative affects on generations of Native American children who have inherited the trauma of the past?

Consider this: whenever the month of November rolls around, most Americans prepare for Thanksgiving dinner. In American schools across the nation, the plight of the pilgrims was always the highlight and focus in the telling of those 1620s meals in which Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoags was invited and brought many of his people to the feasts.

Author Tommy Orange, in the Prologue of his book There, There (2018) calls it a “land deal meal.” He writes, “Two years later there was another, similar meal meant to symbolize eternal friendship. Two hundred Indians dropped dead that night from supposed unknown poison” (272).

However, it was Massasoit’s son, Chief Metacomet, also known as King Phillip, and the Wampanoag people, who suffered cruelly by the Plymouth Colony, which started the first Indian War. Ultimately, Metacomet was behaded and “drawn and quartered.”1

Subsequently, Metacomet’s head was sold for thirty shillings to the Plymouth Colony, “the going rate for an Indian head at the time. The head was spiked and carried through the streets of Plymouth before it was put on display at Plymouth Colony Fort for the next twenty five years,” Orange writes (273).

Knowing that one could profit from Indian heads and hair in the American colonies, including the heads of men, women, and children, became open season on the lives of Native American people. In fact, today, anyone can visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut that provides details of one of the most disturbing massacres that happened in 1637 when up to seven hundred Pequot who gathered for their annual corn dance were horrifically massacred when colonists set their village on fire and shot any man, woman, or chid that tried to escape.

In celebration, the Massachusetts Bay Colony held a ”thanksgiving celebration” that included “kicking the heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls,” as Tommy Orange describes.

The book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970) by Dee Brown documents the many broken treaties, and the bounties on Indian heads that persistedinto the late 1800s in the American west, such as the continued use of Indian heads as if they were “soccer balls.” Such atrocities were still common against Native communities. In fact, this book’s shocking, horrific depiction of the systematic annihilation of Native American tribes of the Western frontier that happened between 1860 - 1890 reveals the betrayals, battles, and massacres perpetrated against the indigenous people of America.

Dee Brown says that many tribes and their renowned chiefs (Geronimo, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse) struggled to fight the destruction of their people and culture, and died fighting, or were forced to surrender through unchecked brutality that included massacre.

Tommy Orange, who is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes, writes about one massacre story he grew up with, sharing “what happened to our people not that long ago” when the men were away hunting. He says, “Volunteer militia under Colonel John Chivington came to kill us…They did more than kill us. They tore us up. Mutilated us. Broke our fingers to take our rings, cut off our ears to take our silver, scalped us for our hair…They tore unborn babies out of bellies…They broke soft baby heads against trees. They took our body parts as trophies and displayed them on a stage in downtown Denver” (275 -276). This massacre took place under the American flag and the white flag indicating surrender. But it did not matter. Sadly, as Native American children, we have all heard similar stories. Today, we are still faced with those horrific images into the 21st century. And now, our children are faced with the same reality as long as these images continue to be used and accepted in American culture.

It seems that too many Americans prefer the myths about Indians that are pervasive in this culture through movies, cartoons, and other media that makes the use of Native American symbols such as Indian heads and tomahawk chops by professional sports teams (Red Skins, Cleveland Indians, etc) as well as school sports teams across the nation. These images have been vehemently defended by supposedly educated people. Of course, Indians did not have “red skin”; the red skin came from the blood, as the indigenous people were actually tan and brown people, as noted in1524 when Giovanni da Verrazzano and his crew experienced first contact on the Atlantic coast (currently New York).

In Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York (2002), author and scholar Evan T. Pritchard who is descended from the Micmac people (part of the Algonquin Nations) brilliantly presents a well documented history about the indiginous peoples of New York and surrounding areas. Pritchard’s book educates through academic research, respect, and “even reverence.” He writes, “What started as a scholarly endeavor soon became a spiritual quest…” (2). As a professor of Native American History, Pritchard has presented an informative work that all Americans should read, own, and pass on to their children. Truth is much better than myth.

Finally, I applaud the NFL and other professional sports teams and schools that have changed their logos. The New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs, of which I am a member, have been trying to get the 77 New Jersey schools that the Commission had targeted years ago to remove Indian heads from their gym floors and other offensive logos; some have done so apologetically, but others have rudely refused. However, if school administrators, students, and teachers make the effort to educate themselves about these devastating issues, perhaps they will follow suit and choose unoffensive logos. These symbols hurt Native American children who certainly are aware of the meanings behind such logos, especially the Indian head that is reminiscent of massacre.


1 When a person was “drawn and quartered” that person would have each limb tied to a horse that faced four different directions. Once the horses were stuck, each horse ran in four different directions, which literally quartered a person’s body.

 

Works Cited:

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Random House, 1970.

Orange, Tommy. There, There. New York: Knopf Doubleday, June 2018.

Pritchard, Evan T. Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of th Algonquin People of New York. Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 2002.

 

 


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