August 18, 2011

A history of Native wrestling

Aboriginal wrestlers didn't always dance to the same tune

Minority Mat Report

By Greg Oliver
Aboriginal wrestlers over the years haven't always agreed on how their heritage should be portrayed and exploited for professional wrestling's gain. Some were comfortable with the headdress and the war dances, and others eschewed the cultural shortcut completely.

Gerry Brisco, from the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes of Oklahoma, was one of those who elected not to play a stereotype, the same path as his older brother, the late NWA World champion Jack Brisco.

"I just kind of had a different belief. Even during the beginning of my career, some of the promoters, some of the bookers said, 'You ought to go as a Native American'--Indian at that time. I never would do it because I just didn't feel like that was the right thing for me to do," Brisco told SLAM! Wrestling. "I never held it against them. I always begrudged the guys that weren't Native Americans and went out and dressed and pretended to be Native Americans--some of the Latinos and Italians, and guys like that, I'm not naming names."
Then there are the wrestlers who embraced the stereotypes:[Billy] Two Rivers had decent success in the Carolinas and across Canada, but in Great Britain, he became an icon, with his Mohawk haircut and war dance.

Typical of the time is a 1957 story from the Sheboygan, Wisc., newspaper previewing Two Rivers' appearance.

"Billy Two Rivers is a Mohawk Indian who is but 22 years old and has been wrestling four years as a pro. He is very colorful as he enters the ring attired in his Indian head-dress and costume. Billy hails from a reservation in Caughnawaga, Quebec, Canada, and is one of the speediest wrestlers in the mat sport," it reads. "Fans have compared Billy with such other outstanding Indian wrestlers as Chief Little Wolf, Chief Big Heart and Suni War Cloud. He has a specialized hold he calls the Indian Tomahawk."

"I wasn't a hero, I was an ambassador," explained Two Rivers. "Representing the Kahnawake specifically, the Mohawk people, and then the Native people of North America." He stressed that he never had a discussion with promoters about what he was trying to do, and that he would have said no to anything dastardly.

"People had a different image of us, we were still stereotyped from books and whatnot as being stoic people and conservationists, and all the other things that go with it," he said, continuing, "except here in Quebec and Canada, where we were sort of criminalized for being wild and uncivilized and everything else that goes along with it to justify their theft of our property."
The greatest aboriginal wrestler?But as far as great athletes and longevity in pro wrestling go, none could touch Wahoo McDaniel. The Choctaw-Chickasaw Indian from Oklahoma was a star football player at the University of Oklahoma, before going pro and then into wrestling.

"Who was Wahoo McDaniel?" Florida sportswriter Dave Hyde asked after his death at age 63 in 2002. "Who wasn’t he? An American Indian, an expansion Dolphin, a legendary wrestler, an old-time carouser, a full-time personality, an Oiler, a Bronco, a Jet, a guard, a linebacker, a kicker--he was the kind of figure we lost long ago on the sports pages: an original."

"Wahoo and I were dear friends," said Brisco. "There's a short list of great, great, great Native American athletes, and Wahoo McDaniel is, in my mind, is right up there with the Jim Thorpes and the Jack Briscos, guys like that that were great Native Americans."
Comment:  I'm guessing that "Wahoo" wasn't McDaniel's given name.

Funny that Two Rivers didn't make the connection. He was a Mohawk dressed as a stereotypical Plains chief. This stereotype is widely associated with war-whooping, tomahawk-wielding savages. These savages are widely considered to be "wild and civilized" criminals out to ravage and kill Americans.

So Two Rivers helped to create the very situation he complained about. Not too swift, if you ask me.

For more on Native wrestling, see Cherokee Chief in Wrestling Hall of Fame and Seminoles Want Pro Alligator Wrestling.

Below:  Billy Two Rivers. "I look like a million other savage Indians, but I don't understand why people think I'm a savage Indian."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, I thought you were talking about traditional wrestling, rather than pro wrestling.