The Universal Notebook: The tomahawk chop and the BFI

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When it comes to eliminating racist nicknames and stereotypes, we have made progress in recent years.

But we still have a way to go.

Edgar Allen BeemThe World Series games in Atlanta, for example, were a national embarrassment not just because the Atlanta team is named the Braves and wears a tomahawk across the front of its uniforms, but because Braves’ fans mimic a Native American war chant and pantomime a scalping with an offensive gesture known as the tomahawk chop.

And Freeport’s Big Indian (familiarly known as the  BFI commonly using an expletive) has been in the news lately as an offense to indigenous people. 

Maine, to give credit where credit is due, is the first and only state in the nation to have eliminated Native American team names such as Indians, Braves, and Redskins from all public schools. 

“Maine honors its indigenous population,” said former Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, “by passing a law that outlaws offensive mascots and another that outlaws offensive place names.”

In pro sports, the Cleveland Indians, allegedly named for Maine’s Louis Sockalexis, will be changing their name to the Cleveland Guardians next season. And the Washington Redskins will announce a new name in 2022, something owner Dan Snyder said he would never do.

Cleveland and Washington bowed to economic pressure from sponsors. Those positive steps leave us with the Kansas City Chiefs in football, Chicago Blackhawks in hockey, and, most notoriously, the Atlanta Braves. 

John Bear Mitchell, coordinator of the University of Maine’s Wabanaki Center Outreach and Student Development, calls the tomahawk chop “one of the most offensive gestures made. The tomahawk is a religious symbol of death. It is not to be mocked or mimicked.”

The Atlanta organization knows the tomahawk chop is offensive. Two years ago they agreed not to do it when St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is in the ballpark. They know it’s wrong, yet they continue its use. What’s worse, baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred says local Native Americans don’t care.

Manfred maintains that the chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation approves of the tomahawk chop. The Eastern Band are the descendants of the 800 or so Cherokee left behind in Georgia when the federal government forced 15,000 Cherokee to walk the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in 1838. Some 4,000 Cherokees died on the way to Oklahoma.

The chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokees has said he is OK with “Braves” but not with the “chop.” It must stop.

Meanwhile, in South Freeport, the landmark FBI has been dragged into the culture wars simply because it has recently changed ownership.

Freeport’s 30-foot Big Indian has been a roadside attraction since 1969 when it was erected to attract attention to a now-long-gone moccasin shop, Casco Bay Trading Post. It is essentially a giant cigar store Indian.

As to what’s wrong with it, John Bear Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot Nation, said, “These icons establish a disconnect between modern reality and the past. It puts us in the past, which is where some people would like us to be.”

Although the FBI was named Chief Passamaquoddy when it was delivered from Pennsylvania, it does not depict a member of the Passamaquoddy or any other Maine tribe.

“The biggest complaint we get,” said Leslie Reis, owner of a consignment shop in the former Casco Bay Trading Post, “is that it’s not dressed properly for a Maine Indian. It’s Western.”

Reis suggests the peace process might start with Maine’s tribal leaders being invited to renovate the FBI by applying more appropriate Wabanaki dress and perhaps a plaque honoring Maine tribes. 

Dana disagrees.

“It needs to go,” he insisted. “But local people are the ones who have the voice their neighbors will listen to, not me.”

So there the FBI stands, 52 years old, vandals’ arrows bristling from its shield, its spear rusted through and held together by electrical tape, a decaying symbol of cultural insensitivity.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.