"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Former WWE Superstar 'Tatanka' Talks about Being Professional Wrestling's "Real-Life Native American"

Chris Chavis is a professional wrestling superstar who is also descended from the Lumbee Native American tribe in North Carolina.  He began wrestling in 1990 and immediately made use of his Native heritage to create the wrestling persona "Tatanka."  More info can be found at his Wikipedia page and personal website.


Here's a great interview with Chris on the Miami Herald website.  He was in town to wrestle at the Coastal Championship Wrestling indie show at the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming (a tribal casino outside Miami).  I've posted some of the highlights below but I recommend reading the full article to get his whole background.

Former WWE superstar Tatanka talks Native American

Q: What is the history of the Miccosukee, Seminole and Lumbee tribes getting along? Any battles?

A: No. No battles.  I have a contact list of all tribes throughout the U.S. (including Alaska) and Canada. People don't realize there are actually 1,838 tribes. Huge. There's approximately 600 in Canada, 425 in Alaska and and around 1,000 in the U.S. People don't realize that because TV has programmed people to see only the Apache, the Navajo, the Cherokee, and TV always depicted the Native Americans not in a proper way.

That's why it's good we finally have movies that came along -- like "Dances with Wolves" -- that really portrayed the Native Americans as they truly are. Not like the John Wayne movies.

Q: Did you have to overcome any stereotypes growing up?

We really didn't have to deal with that.  Thank God I came from an area where it was accepted. I went to high school and college in Virginia.

North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, those areas have a lot of native tribes. You got the Cherokees. You have the Lumbees, the Iroquois, a lot of different tribes. So it wasn't a thing people wanted to stereotype. It was more accepted.

The stereotyping, yea, you still have that, but I think it's more from some of the areas in the country where you have certain races of people who are very hypocritical or anti.

Q: Did promoters ever want to give you a different character than your real-life persona as a Native American?

A: ...They said, "There's not a lot of natives in the business, but the natives who have been in the business have done great. You can be who you are. You're the real deal. Let's just shoot with you." George Scott was a promoter who believed what you do has to be believable. He would call it a shoot.

So they loved that I was Native American.

...When I went to the WWF, [owner] Vince [McMahon] loved it. He's said, "I loved that you're truly native. We can go right to your tribe. We can do vignettes right at your tribe. They can check your name. We're going to start you as Chris Chavis because Chris Chavis is really Native American. They can find out Chris Chavis is a proud member of the Lumbee Tribe."

Chris Chavis posing with our troops
(image source: www.nativetatanka.com)


Admittedly I don't know a whole lot about this "sporting theater" known as professional wrestling or even "Tatanka" the wrestling legend but I watched enough as a kid to know I don't much care for it.

Professional wrestling has never been known for its subtlety or nuance.  It's essentially a testosterone fueled sideshow with crazy characters and even crazier bodies.  (hairless, tanned, and oiled up like they should be...dammit!)  Then again as Chris Chavis demonstrates, it is also a forum for expressing your identity and heritage (albeit through an over-the-top wrestling persona).

Chris is also uniquely qualified to speak on this issue of Native representation in the media and popular culture since he literally was the face of Native America for countless young wrestling fans across America.  I don't know his character Tatanka or his routine to comment on specifics but I suspect it may be a mixture of his personal heritage and culture with some Hollywood thrown in.

Why you ask?

When the event promoters and managers say, "You can be who you are. You're the real deal." I can't help but wonder if they're thinking in the back of their heads "Wow, a real Indian!  We don't have to parade around those fake Indians anymore!"  From the promoters point of view, Chris brings the tantalizing qualities of his authentic native heritage to a public that time and time again has proven its insatiable thirst for the exotic Indian on display.

In my opinion, Tatanka looks like a Native American mascot brought to life.  He has donned the customary plains headdress, warpaint, and even dances.  Then again, all professional wrestlers are forced into a character niche, often stereotypical, to fulfill the demands of the business.

Well enough from me.  I'll let this video do the talking:

The article/interview also has some interesting language.  Whenever someone refers to a Native person as a "real-life Native American" I can't help but shake my head.  It's pretty sad that people have become so used to fake Indians that the "real deal" is so amazing!

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