The Origin of the Tomahawk Chop

By Vivian El-Salawy on March 30, 2016

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Ah, the “tomahawk chop” – one of the greatest traditions at Florida State University that is commonly confused with the “war chant”.  Nothing is more unifying than going to a football game in Doak Campbell Stadium and seeing a crowd of 82,300 chanting fans doing the chop.  But what is the origin of the “tomahawk chop” and its relationship to the “war chant”?  Surprisingly enough, it all started off with the World-Renowned Marching Chiefs.

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The Florida State University’s Marching Chiefs are well-known for having an incredible, crowd-raising pregame.  As the tunnel opens, Chiefs flood the field with their go cadence – one after the other.  They play their pregame fanfare and then proceed to march down the field with their famous “chief step”.  The “chief step” is a marching style that consists of a ninety degree, poppy step, accompanied by a swinging arm motion from their side to the center of their stomach.  Fingers tucked in tightly and hand held open, this technique is strangely familiar, isn’t it?

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The cheerleaders began to mimic these motions only at a higher elevation (rather than from their side to their stomach, as the Chiefs would do it) in order to get the crowd moving as well – and they were successful.  As the crowd became more involved, what used to be the arm-swinging motion in the “chief step” now became the motion we know today as the “tomahawk chop”.

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The “tomahawk chop” became engraved in the culture and tradition of Florida State.  It even found its place in the Marching Chiefs pregame, as Renegade and Osceola stride down the middle of the field and the band plays the “war chant”, followed by actual chanting alongside the “tomahawk chop”.

As for Florida State’s “War Chant” (again, not to be confused with the chop) – it was first heard in its current form in 1984 at a game against Auburn.  However, it roots from  “Massacre”, a popular cheer first played by the Marching Chiefs in the 1960s.  Sharing a similar melodic pattern at today’s athletic events, you can often hear “Massacre” mistaken for the “War Chant” by Florida State fans.

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Interestingly enough, the “tomahawk chop” has spread among a variety of athletic teams across the nation – the best example being the Atlanta Braves.  Former FSU President Dale Lick reflected on the “tomahawk chop” in a 1993 column for USA Today:

“Some traditions we cannot control. For instance, in the early 1980s, when our band, the Marching Chiefs, began the now-famous arm motion while singing the ‘war chant,’ who knew that a few years later the gesture would be picked up by other teams’ fans and named the ‘tomahawk chop’? It’s a term we did not choose and officially do not use.”

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While there has been more controversy with the “tomahawk chop” than the “war chant” in terms of its role in cultural appropriation – it is important to know the history of this motion.  Initially rooting from a marching technique, this singular motion has unified much of the Florida State community.

So the next time you attend a Florida State football game and you see Renegade and Osceola striding down the field – think about how important the history and traditions of this university are, and take a minute to really appreciate it.

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