The Kansas City Chiefs have done something no other franchise in the National Football League has done: Give local tribes a level playing field.
While the Washington NFL franchise has shown defiance and thrown out token trinkets like the treaty makers of old, the Chiefs have solicited Native input through a partnership with the American Indian Center of the Great Plains. This outlet gives local Native leaders an opportunity to explain why traditions, culture and ceremony are important to Native people across the country.
“What we’re doing is starting a new chapter in our relationship with the Kansas City Chiefs,” American Indian Center of the Great Plains president John Learned told ICTMN. “This is our community. I live here and the things they value as an organization, we as Native people value. Honor, community, tradition are the same values we as Native people have always talked about. We can’t change history, but we can move forward. And the Chiefs have been very receptive to our input.”
Chiefs president Mark Donovan agreed. “We are grateful for John (Learned), Gena (Timberman) and the entire American Indian Community Working Group’s unwavering support in helping us understand ways in which we could honor, educate and create awareness of American Indian culture for our fans,” Donovan told ICTMN. “We are very pleased with how the events throughout the week and the celebrations at the game transpired. We look forward to continuing our relationship with the working group.”
The two groups meet on a regular basis.
Donovan and Bill Chapin, the vice president of business operations, have been active by asking tribal representatives questions to get a better sense of their concerns before they become national issues. The Native leaders include Richard Lanoue (Lakota), Ernie Stevens III (Oneida tribe of Wisconsin), Gary Johnson (Choctaw Nation), Elwood Otto (Otoe/Missouria tribe of Oklahoma) and Gena Timberman (Choctaw Nation). Cheyenne/Arapaho spiritual leader Moses Starr, Jr, from Concho, Oklahoma is also active.
Priest Holmes address the crowd during the drum blessing. (Courtesy Kansas City Chiefs)
Learned said they have to pick their battles. Getting 75,000 people to stop the chop and the chant is one they left for another day. But they have talked at great length about the headdresses worn by non-Indians. Once the elders informed Chiefs’ executives of the history – how each feather has meaning, representing an act of bravery or honor – it became clear that to see a fan waving a plastic tomahawk and wearing a headdress is insulting.
“Bill [Chapin] and Mark Donovan both said, ‘We’re more sensitive now to this stuff than we have been in the past because of what we’re learning from your group,’ ” said Learned, Cheyenne/Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. “They told us they don’t have control over what CBS or FOX airs [during broadcasts], but the can make suggestions. They can control preseason broadcasts and they have told their camera people do not show any of those guys in headdresses and makeup because all they’re really doing is trying to get on TV.”
The educational process has also carried over to the drum used by the Chiefs at home games. It’s not a sacred drum or something special with a spirit of its own. It’s a prop used to stir up the crowd’s emotions. The Chiefs brought it back when they renovated Arrowhead Stadium four years ago. They’ve had celebrities like George Brett and Tom Watson bang the drum to get fans going on game day. Again, through discussions with the tribal leaders the Chiefs were able to take another step in the right direction on November 2 during the Native American Heritage ceremony.
Representatives from the Native community offered tobacco and blessed the drum. Starr Jr., who blessed the four directions inside the stadium, delivered the drum mallet to Chiefs Hall of Famer Priest Holmes, who had the honor of beating the drum for the game against New York Jets.
The Native American Heritage ceremony also included the We-Ta-Se, American Legion 410 Honor Color Guard, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, which presented the colors, and Tabitha Fair, an Oklahoma native of the Chickasaw Nation, along with the Chickasaw Nation Youth Choir, sang the National Anthem. As a sign of respect, they sang an honor song in recognition of Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, the namesake of the Chiefs.
Another idea being discussed is to honor members of the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame During the November 30 Sunday Night Game against the Denver Broncos. “We’ll probably do another Play 60 with one of the reservations out here,” Learned said. “We had 50 Native kids at the one we with Haskell earlier this month. I have talked with Tyler Bray (Potawatomi- Citizen Band) about working with our organization. I think it’s going to work out.”