Unreserved

How Indigenous pro wrestlers lock up with racial stereotypes inside the ring

Pro wrestling on the global scale, like in the WWE, has mostly moved past the cultural stereotypes that defined its characters in the past. But Indigenous wrestlers may struggle with whether it's OK to work with a script that includes racial slurs, especially in smaller, independent leagues.

'It's the easy, stereotypical target to do. But hey, I'm going to dish it back,' says grappler Kyle Hawk

Desi Derata, left, stands with her Arrow Club teammate Kyle Hawk after he was narrowly defeated by his opponent, Chad Thomas. Wrestling was a big part of the Indigenous Comic Con in Albequerque, N.M. (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)
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"This is my land! I stole it from you!"

Chad Thomas, a strapping Texan, is taunting his opponent Kyle Hawk, a Hopi-Sioux-Laguna wrestler from Albuquerque, N.M.

Thomas gestures rudely to a crowd of mostly Indigenous onlookers, who boo him loudly.

He continues to jeer: "I will tell you though, in the midst of all y'all booing me, I did find out last night on ancestry.com that I'm one-sixteenth Cherokee."

This is all part of the act, of course. Thomas and Hawk are professional wrestlers, competing at a show as part of the Indigenous Comic Con in Albequerque.

The crowd cheers on Hawk, energizing him to pummel Thomas for his racist taunts.

"It fires me up," Hawk told Unreserved. "It feels like you guys are right behind me, fighting with me."

Pro wrestling on the global scale, like in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), has mostly moved past the cultural stereotypes that defined its characters in the past.

But Indigenous wrestlers may struggle with whether it's OK to work with a script that includes racial slurs, especially in smaller, independent leagues.

Babyface versus heel

Hawk is playing the good guy, or "babyface" in wrestling parlance, to Thomas's "heel," or villain.

The idea is simple: the heel does whatever they can to rile up the crowd. The more obnoxious or sinister the heel can portray themselves, the more satisfying it will be when the babyface ultimately triumphs over them.

To Hawk, it affords him a rare opportunity to confront a racist antagonist — even if it's in the confines of a performance.

"Of course, I'm going to hear it regardless. It's the easy, stereotypical target to do. But hey, I'm going to dish it back," he said.

Desi Derata says wrestlers show a lack of creativity when they resort to stereotyping and hurling crass insults to get a reaction from the audience. (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

According to Vice Sports columnist Ian Williams, disparaging the local sports team or hurling slurs may be quick and dirty tools to get a crowd reaction — but they're almost guaranteed to work.

"If we accept that everything's fake, and that the audience is in on it, what's going to get them to cheer that Native American babyface more is for them to see the heelish, white villain saying the same awful stuff that they may have encountered in their lives, right?" he told Unreserved.

Racial taunts 'cheap and easy'

Desi Derata, originally from the Cahiuilla tribe in California, is less enthused over such tactics. It's indicative, she says, of a lack of creativity on the wrestler's part.

"It's cheap and easy, because they're not so creative; they can't come up with anything else," she said.

She faced similar obstacles during the show in her mixed wrestling match against Gino Rivera.

As Rivera, a brash Latino-American heel, had the advantage over Derata, he mimicked a wardance stomp, and made a "tomahawk" chopping motion with his arm.

Desi Derata takes on Gino Rivera in an intergender match at the Indigenous Comic Con in Albequerque, N.M. (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

When Derata was in Hawk's corner during another match, Hawk's opponent called her a "squaw," an offensive slur used against Indigenous women.

"He might be saying it to get a rise from Kyle or whoever they're saying it to, to get a reaction. But the thing is, you can't let it bother you in the ring or out of the ring. We gotta move beyond that."

'Noble savage' stereotype

At Indigenous Comic Con, Hawk and Derata were accompanied by one of the best known Native American wrestlers of all time: Chris Chavis, a.k.a. Tatanka. The name Tatanka is Lakota. Chavis himself, however, is from the Lumbee tribe.

Hawk loved being able to perform alongside one of his childhood heroes — in the same building they met, years ago.

"I first met him [here] in 2011. So it's kind of cool, like a full-circle story," he said.

Chavis tore through the WWE (then the WWF) in the 1990s, taking on top superstars of the time like The Undertaker and Bret Hart.

Much like the Indigenous archetypes commonly seen in wrestling and Hollywood, Chavis wore a headdress and loincloth into the ring with a signature mullet haircut.

Kyle Hawk forgoes the headdress often worn by Indigenous wrestlers like Tatanka, instead wearing a hoodie adorned with feathers. (Submitted by Kyle Hawk)

Chavis said he's never received negative reaction from Indigenous viewers, who understand that he's primarily an entertainer, not an educator.

"I never did anything stupid, meaning stereotyping or doing anything wrong," he said.

The new generation

For Derata, being in the ring is a chance to "send a message."

She noted how it felt "comfortable" to enter the ring to the beat of a drum like the ones she heard at powwows when she was young — and to perform in front of kids who looked like her.

"Obviously, it's entertainment. It's a show, to an extent. But if we can show what we can do in there, you can send a message. You can show them that you can do anything anywhere," she said.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kyle Muzyka and Stephanie Cram.