Every Thanksgiving I think of the same story that went down during my short stint as a writer on WWE’s weekly live wrestling show, RAW. During my 5-6 months creating ridiculous dialogue and storylines for pro wrestlers, I obviously found myself in some pretty crazy situations, most I will hold onto until some book I decide to write or a deathbed I’m confined to. But every last Thursday of November, one moment from my time near the squared circle can not be forgotten, and that story involves the Native American warrior known as Tatanka.
Tatanka first debuted in the WWE in 1991, coming to the ring in intricate headdresses and carrying a tomahawk, in the vein that most stereotypical ethnic portrayals wrestling fans have witnessed since its birth. But being 12 years old myself, I saw nothing wrong with the character and gimmick given to former NFL player Chris Chavis and Tatanka actually became one of my favorite wrestlers. I even remember forcing my mom to take me to Toys R Us to buy his action figure. I looked forward to seeing him rain dance every week, and defeat whatever jerk was in his way, especially during an undefeated streak he held early in his career. But like all wrestlers, he had a run, then he disappeared.
In 2005, I was getting fat and depressed as a WWE Creative Writer, mostly assigned to low level talent and writing bits that involved foot fetishes (word to Snitsky). I was hardly creatively stimulated and was contemplating leaving within 2 months of my hire. And that’s when I heard Vince McMahon had taken a meeting with Tatanka, now 44 years old, and was contemplating re-hiring him to the company, based on name recognition amongst nostalgic fans. I quickly became a vocal proponent in bringing back one of my childhood favorites and I was pretty excited when it became official: Tatanka was returning. I figured I could stick around for a bit longer. This seemed fun.
I remember being one of the first people to welcome him back when he showed up to his first RAW that year. He was so gracious and sweet, and he seemed genuinely over the moon at this chance. He even commented on being happy to portray Native Americans once again on TV in such a rewarding and positive light. He had been working on pre-recorded, highly produced vignettes with the talented Alex Greenfield, another writer, who came back with some intense stories, since they were all shot on a real reservation involving serious Native American traditions and ceremonies. Things were looking up for Tatanka, and Alex even let me put my two cents in for his first few appearances, which thrilled 11 year old me. Unfortunately for Tatanka, the fans didn’t seem to care in the same way that pre-pubic hair Jensen did, and the response was mild at best. It was just not working out the way the Creative Department had planned.
Quickly many of the writers, including myself, who liked both Tatanka’s legacy and the actual man, responded to the icy reception and suggested we turn him “heel,” or into a bad guy, where he can complain about the treatment of Native Americans and actually address the boo’s. Vince and his daughter Stephanie were into the idea, and we went back to trying to fix our Tatanka problem. But while writing down some of the ideas, we heard there was a concrete concept for Tatanka and we’d love it.
And so during the weekly Creative meeting, Tatanka was one of the first things we addressed. Vince explained that he too loved Tatanka and was bummed to see the crowd reaction, especially after he spent a lot of money on the “Let’s Visit Tatanka In His Tent” segments they had taped. Vince said they had come up with the solution to make this character memorable and then he looked us in the eyes and said…
“Let’s turn him into a casino owner.”
Very little can make me spit take. Especially after months of working in this traveling circus, which included working hand-in-hand with Chris Benoit, who soon after would kill his whole family, and then himself. But hearing Vince say this, literally made me spit up the water I was sipping. Vince explained Tatanka would come out in jeans and a leather jacket (to his credit, that is what Tatanka wore on the road), and stick it to the white man, letting them know exactly how much money he’s making, tax-free and without real laws, all while on their land. This after weeks of Vince letting us know to take his heritage very serious, as the tradition and history is what will sell him to the fans. We were frequently running shows at the Mohegan Sun Casino in nearby Connecticut, so Vince explained he would debut there, and we would do it as close to Thanksgiving as he could.
I admit I laughed. And if I didn’t know Tatanka, and he was still just an action figure to me, this easily could become my favorite post-modern wrestling character ever. But having worked with Tatanka during his rebirth into the WWE, this was devistating. We’re now going to be asking a proud Native American man, who has made his living being a proud tribe member across the world, to basically burn his headdress and regalia, in order to portray one of the most despised stereotypes in the United States, and antagonize White America by gloating about land and money, that in reality they rightfully deserve. Alex Greenfield and I laughed, but also sort of feared what would happen when he had to tell the man.
At the next TV taping, Alex explained he was about to go tell Tatanka. I wished him luck and listened closely for plates from catering to be thrown in disgust. Hours went by, and I didn’t hear or see Alex (probably because I was helping with life changing backstage pieces like this). It wasn’t until the end of the show that I saw Alex as we were boarding Vince’s private jet that took us from city to city.
I said with concern, “So…what happened? How mad did he get?”
Alex laughed and said, “Mad? He has storyline ideas. He’s thrilled. He’s hoping he can debut it Thanksgiving week also.”
The Casino Owner gimmick never actually happened, for reasons I don’t really know, but probably understand. Tatanka lasted another year or two in the WWE before leaving on his own accord, and I think he shows up still every once in awhile, as a “Legend.”
But every Thanksgiving I remember that dude, and how he almost played a villainous Native American Casino Owner on TV, changing his decade long run as one of the most positive and popular portrayals of his lineage ever in pro wrestling. But then again, I also remember he played football for the Washington Redskins and I kinda laugh.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.