In keeping with the theme of having themed Art of Gimmickry posts, today’s post will feature the Native American gimmick in honor of this past Thanksgiving Day.
While few actually achieved national prominence, the reason why the Native wrestler has been a staple in the media’s representation of stereotypical wrestling gimmicks is because back in the day it seems every damn territory had someone working a Native gimmick — whether they actually belonged to a tribe or not.
Too Many Chiefs
According to this list found on Obsessed with Wrestling, who still insist on referring to Native American wrestlers as Indians, there’s a lot of Native American wrestlers who were all chiefs that weren’t named Wahoo McDaniel or Jay Strongbow. There’s about 17 of them, from Chief Black Eagle to Chief White Eagle. Seeing as there’s way too many to cover the full trajectory of the Native American wrestling gimmick, I stuck to more well-known grapplers. You know, the ones I could actually find YouTube footage of.
I couldn’t dig up a lot on Chief Big Heart, but from what I gathered on the interwebs he was definitely the real deal and an early stand out in the 60’s, wrestling for all of the major territories. He also had a memorable feud with Dr. Jerry Graham. Everything that one could associate with being Native American, based on the few widely-held beliefs most of the country was aware of, were incorporated into the big chief’s repertoire. Headdress, check. War dance, check. Tomahawk chops, check. Submission hold dubbed the bow and arrow, check. He was pretty much who Anthony Quinn’s wrestling gimmick was based on in the future Ringside Cinema entry: Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Chief Big Heart was also the very first favorite wrestler of Bret “The Hitman” Hart. In this post written by The Hitman, he goes into detail on how much of the stuff that Big Heart utilized as part of his gimmick was essential to any successful Native American gimmick, and how close WWE fans in the 80’s came to having a new Native American wrestler. Only thing is, the new Native American wrestler in question, Steve Gatorwolf, forgot to do the damn war dance and was never heard of again. It was probably for the best, seeing as a recent Google search shows us that Mr. Gatorwolf was charged this year with sexual assault on a child.
Much like, Big Heart, Chief Wahoo McDaniel was also as real as it gets when it came to Native American wrestlers. He was also a legit badass on the gridiron, playing for such teams as the Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos, New York Jets, and the Miami Dolphins. And while him being a legitimately tough bastard might’ve translated into unbridled savagery thanks in part to the gimmick, he instead raised the perception, along with Jack Brisco and Jim Thorpe, of the Native American as a gifted athlete. He still donned a headdress, and threw Tomahawk chops, but as David Shoemaker puts it in his book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling:
His affect was almost comical, but the seriousness with which he approached his craft – and the brutality with which he dealt with his opponents – balanced the crass iconography with a grim pride.
He was a big draw for promoters for the majority of his run as a wrestler and was seemingly always feuding over the NWA United States Title. One such famous feud (against Greg Valentine) led to the infamous “I Broke Wahoo’s Leg” t-shirt, which you can now own courtesy of Barber Shop Window and earn yourself instant Internet Wrestling Community/smark cred. Like most rare breeds of wrestler, the realism associated with McDaniel, both as a gifted athlete and as a Native American, helped him transcend what was otherwise another generalized stereotypical gimmick.
Up north in the WWWF, Chief Jay Strongbow was one of the Italians Jerry Brisco begrudged for pretending to be Native American. Having previously wrestled under his real name, Joe Scarpa, Strongbow obviously didn’t find success until he put on the headdress and did the war dance. Alongside fellow pasian Bruno Sammartino and Latino fan-favorite, Pedro Morales, Strongbow fit in nicely with the collection of positive ethnic stereotypes that the WWWF was pushing at the time. Even though there wasn’t a large Native American fan base in New York. Again, as David Shoemaker explains in his book:
Of course this was storytelling, but it can also be seen as an emerging sociopolitical recalibration; the Indian-as-villian trend had finally met its match in pop culture with the ascendance of the Indian-as-American-hero iconographical meme…
And as this new kind of American hero, Strongbow became a household name and main event player. While never capturing the world title, his clout was such that it turned an Iraqi (Adnan Al-Kaissie) into another Native American (Billy White Wolf) who would go on to be his tag team partner and, much like The Undertaker and Kane, created a kayfabe brother for him by the name of Jules Strongbow. He went on to win tag team gold with both of these partners on separate occasions. To younger fans, like myself (if you consider being in your early 30’s young), you might remember him, along with Wahoo McDaniel, presenting Tatanka with a ceremonial headdress and as his spiritual advisor.
Keeping with Shoemakers’s statement of the Native American as a hero, most Native American wrestlers were still prominently portrayed as stock characters who were not quite a fully integrated part of the “civilized” world, yet still maintained an innate goodness.
Enter Don Eagle. Considering he retired in 1963, Don Eagle was one of the earliest and most popular Native American wrestlers of that time. It certainly helped that his years in wrestling coincided with the advent of commercial television network programming. He was a true pioneer of the Native American gimmick taking on the likes of Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, and Buddy Rogers. His look was clearly influenced by the old-timey Hollywood Westerns with his elaborate headdresses, mohawk haircut, and his preference for wrestling barefoot. And of course his “Indian dance”. Because as we learned from the Steve Gatorwolf incident, what’s a Native American wrestler without a tribal dance routine? Don Eagle set the standard for what was expected of a Native American Wrestler. Pretty much to this day.
Contrary to the name, Little Beaver wasn’t an Attitude Era creation of Vince Russo’s. He was a little person working the Native American gimmick. According to this insensitive old-timey announcer, he was pretty much a version of Don Eagle if Don Eagle had gone out in the rain, gotten wet, and shrank. From the couple of matches I saw, there didn’t seem to be much in terms of his actual ring work that reinforced his gimmick. If anything, it was in the entrance gear, from loincloth to the moccasins. He was also the go-to little wrestler for bigger, fatter, wrestlers to squash for the sake of a “Holy Shit!” moment before they were termed “Holy Shit!” moments. Him being flattened was basically the highlight of the King Kong Bundy/Hillbilly Jim mixed six-man tag team match from WrestleMania III.
Jay Youngblood, along with brothers Chris and Mark also worked the Native American gimmick, Jay being the most successful of the three. He had a fresh young look which makes sense seeing as he passed away when he was just 30. Whereas McDaniel and Strongbow offered audiences an all-too familiar look at the older, stoic, Native American, Jay was a baby-faced babyface ushering in a new era of younger generation Native American wrestlers. Though still keeping intact the traits of the gimmick, in terms of both the look and moveset — he wasn’t the most charismatic behind the mic, but there was definitely something about him that made him a perennial fan favorite. Forming a successful tag team with Ricky Steamboat surely didn’t hurt.
I’m purposely leaving out Jack and Jerry Brisco because, aside from being actual Native Americans, they never actually used it as part of their gimmick. I could also mention Dances with Dudley, but I’d rather not.
Tatanka received all the marketing and merchandising that Steve Gatorwolf missed out on. Being an actual Native American from the Lumbee tribe definitely helped his cause. He was even given a Goldberg-esque undefeated streak that went on for like two years. The machine was definitely behind him, having me believe he actually had a shot at winning the Intercontinental Title from Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania IX. In what should’ve been his breakout moment, the WWE failed to have his gimmick pay off by not having him compete in the Survivor Series main event against The Foreign Fanatics. They kept a Native American wrestler off of a pay-per-view centered on Thanksgiving! Instead, Tatanka was replaced by The Undertaker on the All-Americans team, and this was before Undertaker’s American Bad Ass Gimmick.
Another standout moment for Tatanka was his passing of the torch ceremony on an episode of Raw, that had a Lumbee chief, Ray Little Turtle, present Tatanka with a full-length chief headdress. But what really reinforced the passing of the torch aspect was the presence of Wahoo McDaniel and Jay Strongbow. Other than feuding with Irwin R. Schyster over not paying a gift tax on said headdress, Tatanka did little worth noting afterwards. He did turn heel and align himself with Ted DiBiase’s mediocre stable, The Million Dollar Corporation. The most surprising thing from that development was that WWE didn’t have Tatanka use his newfound ties to become an evil casino owner or something terrible like that. Years later, looking to fill the Native American void, Tatanka returned to the WWE in 2005. He started out as a babyface and again turned heel towards the end of his run, but much like his first run he failed to leave any kind of lasting impression.
Seeing as Tatanka left seven years ago, it’s easy to overlook whether a seemingly outdated Native American gimmick would work today. What would a modernized look for a Native American be? How much of their culture would need to be present before bordering the line on stereotypical? WWE has proven in recent years that the Samoan wrestler gimmick, another culture that in the past has been largely characterized as even more “savage”, can still exist without resorting to the stereotypes of long ago.
One need only look at Samoa Joe or The Usos, who have incorporated themes of their culture into their gimmick while being respectful and not making themselves out to be caricatures. The fact that they wear wrestling boots helps. Then there’s guys like Roman Reigns and The Rock who pay homage in their own way (like with their tattoos), but don’t really incorporate their cultural ties into their gimmick. This is similar to how the Brisco Brothers operated. But in terms of a gimmick that draws heavily on the cultural aspects of being Native American, what’s the appropriated respectful usage before falling into a stereotypical trap? Maybe the real question is, how many Native American grapplers are currently performing in order to find out? Despite them being a featured staple since the beginning of American pro wrestling on television, there no longer seems to be any notable Native American wrestlers left. At least, not any real ones.