Daily Archives: March 13, 2013

What’s offensive about tomahawks?

Last month a new Canadian basketball team announced that they’d be calling themselves the Ottawa TomaHawks (with a capital “h”).  The name wasn’t a reference to the weapon, but to a two-handed dunk.  Critics argued that the name demeaned Native Americans, and the franchise dropped it only a day after making the announcement.

I can understand why the word “tomahawk” might be considered offensive, since it connotes the old stereotype of Indians as warlike, murderous savages.  Still, tomahawks weren’t a strictly Indian instrument.  In fact, the tomahawk is a perfect symbol of the fusion of Old and New World elements that characterized colonial America.  Both the word and the weapon itself are of Indian origin, but the metal-headed tomahawks you see in pictures, movies, and museum displays weren’t available until European technology arrived in the Americas.  Both whites and Indians alike made use of them, and killing wasn’t the only thing they were doing with them, since metal-headed axes were common trade items. It’s a Native American instrument altered by Europeans and used by both Indians and whites as a weapon, tool, and commercial product.

When I see a tomahawk in a museum or at a reenactment, I don’t think about warlike Indians; I think about how two cultures encountered each other in the Americas, and how both changed in the process.

But if a substantial number of people of Indian descent found the team’s name offensive, then changing it was the right thing to do.  It’s not always about political correctness; sometimes it’s just a matter of basic consideration for the feelings of others.  Common decency shouldn’t have to be a political issue.

War club and tomahawk on display at Yale’s Peabody Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

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