Indigenous wrestlers move beyond feathers and fringe tropes
‘We’re not cartoon characters. We’re people.’
Since the dawn of professional wrestling, race-based gimmicks have been a staple in the industry’s good-versus-evil storylines.
The “Indian” character was no exception, with a wave of wrestlers over the decades donning face paint and headdresses to play the part using stereotypical moves like war dances and tomahawk chops to reinforce the gimmick.
It’s an outdated representation that is all too familiar in pop culture but Indigenous wrestlers making their mark in rings across Canada and the United States are moving beyond the tropes with more genuine portrayals of identities and cultures.
Nyla Rose, who is billed out of Washington, D.C., became the first openly transgender wrestler with a major U.S. wrestling promotion when she signed with All Elite Wrestling (AEW) in 2019.
She enters the ring with the tagline “the Native Beast” as an homage to her Black and Oneida identities. She proudly wears the symbol of a Hiawatha wampum belt, which represents the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, on her armbands.
A red hand print, symbolizing awareness for the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, is also featured prominently on her gear.
“They’re important for me because they’re very real symbols,” said Rose.
I didn’t have heroes like me growing up, so I have to be the person I wish I had.
The majority of the wrestlers behind meaningless feather and fringe costumes that preceded Rose in major U.S. wrestling promotions were not Indigenous.
During the 1970s, Luke Scarpa, who was Italian-American, became a fan favourite as Chief Jay Strongbow in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, now the World Wrestling Entertainment. Quebec wrestler Lionel Giroux, who worked across the province as Little Beaver wearing a Mohawk haircut and loincloth, was also not Indigenous.
American wrestler Steven Romero had a signature “Flying Tomahawk” move as Jay Youngblood.
“The history of pro-wrestling has had some pretty ridiculous attempts at representation,” said Alicia Elliott, a Kanien’kehá:ka writer and wrestling superfan from Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario.
“We were so starved of representation, even those stereotypical portrayals were something that [we were] clinging to because it’s almost like validation that you’re real…. It’s like we take what we can get because we don’t otherwise get anything.”
Elliott remembers the day she first saw Rose appear on television. She said she screamed ecstatically to her husband, pointing out the Hiawatha belt symbol.
Rose became the AEW Women’s World Champion in 2020, and held the title for four months. For fans like Elliott, she’s viewed as a beacon for not only gender diversity, but for Black and Indigenous communities as well.
It’s something that Rose herself is well aware of.
“You never know what you mean to somebody or what your fight means to somebody,” she said.
“I didn’t have heroes like me growing up, so I have to be the person I wish I had.”
Pride in his identity
The pinnacle of Wavell Starr’s wrestling career was appearing in several televised episodes of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) during the early 2000s, although he never signed a contract with the company.
While the Regina-based wrestler has spent most of his career as a bad guy in the ring, he said he’s always cognizant of the images he portrays and how they may impact Indigenous youth.
Like Rose, Starr’s ring name — First Nation Sensation — and how he markets himself stems from pride in his identity as a member of the Star Blanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
His trunks have First Nations designs, and he walks out to music by Cree-Métis rapper Joey Stylez.
“I have no problems using the look and the energy of my background as part of my character. I think it’s OK to do that when it’s not just a gimmick,” said Starr.
As he gets older, Starr said he’s also grown an appreciation for wrestlers who exploited the gimmick. He used to cheer for Junji Hirata, a retired Japanese wrestler who performed as Sonny Two Rivers in Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling.
“I think it’s great that the Native American character was something that was popular, but at the same time, it had to go through that evolution where there were actually authentic Indigenous people,” said Starr.
One of the best known Indigenous wrestlers is Chris Chavis, who began his career in the ‘90s with a two-year undefeated streak as Tatanka. The name Tatanka is Lakota for “bison,” however, Chavis is from the Lumbee Nation.
For fans like Elliott, the industry is in a much better place for Indigenous wrestlers and fans alike.
“Even wrestlers who used to be more stereotypical, I don’t judge them for that either; they were the people who were carving this path,” she said.
“I’m really grateful for that because other people who are coming up don’t have to worry about these really problematic things. They can instead have more realistic stuff to cling to.”
Not cartoon characters
Indigenous representation is important for tag team wrestlers Kyle Zachary and Shawn Rice. The duo, from Kahnawake, south of Montreal, call themselves the Dad Bod Squad.
“We’re old, we’re fat, we’re out of shape. That’s our gimmick,” said Rice.
Both are proud to be Kanien’kehá:ka but you won’t see them wearing feathers or fringe in the ring.
“It’s 2022 now and gimmicks like that, I don’t think they have a place in the industry anymore,” said Zachary.
When Zachary wrestles as a single, the only nod to his culture that appears on his gear is the Hiawatha belt on his knee pads.
“We’re not cartoon characters. We’re people. We’re all still here,” said Zachary.
“We’re carrying the community on our back when we go into the ring every time. It’s important for us to at least do that with dignity and not debase ourselves or our culture.”
June is National Indigenous History Month. This story is a part of a three-part series celebrating Indigenous contributions to the world of atomic drops and full nelsons.