The chop. The chant. The controversy.
Stereotypical Native imagery continues to affect many in Indian Country and now it’s on the world stage as the NFL’s prized Super Bowl features a team from Kansas City known for its inconsiderate chant and “Arrowhead Chop.” Now, the chop and chant is making its way from the Midwest and to the big game on Feb. 2 in Miami.
But even beyond the Super Bowl, the Native imagery controversy remains close to home, real close for some.
Advocates have been fighting for change for years across the country. Some entities have changed but many linger, especially at a high school level. In 2019, Maine became the first state to prohibit public schools and colleges from using Native imagery as mascots. The fight continues in other states and recent news out of Connecticut, Idaho, Utah and Wisconsin pushes the narrative well beyond classrooms or sports venues.
Change is possible.
The Teton County School District in Idaho retired its 90-year-old mascot with the same nickname as the Washington NFL franchise in July of last year. The district sits near the Wyoming border and is about 100 miles from Fort Hall and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Randy’L Teton, public affairs manager for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, said she and others were part of the discussions that led to the change. The board voted 4-1 to retire the mascot and name after two hours of discussion and more than two hours of small-group conversations at the meeting. Teton said her last name comes from her grandfather on her father’s side, who’s ancestors had a history of hunting that area where the school district sits.
“Our work is not done,” Teton said. “We’ll continue to work with the school, staff, students and also the community. Our next move has been working with Teton High School in developing Native curriculum, cultural sensitivity training for staff and students.”
However, the change didn’t come without potential legal ramifications. Not long after the board vote, Republican Rep. Chad Christensen planned to introduce a bill to strip local school boards the authority from changing a school’s mascot. Another Idaho school changed from Boise Braves to Boise Brave, according to Idaho News. Christensen’s district includes the school district and has since backed off but instead penned a resolution that discourages the change unless there is a “consensus” amongst Native groups. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes issued a statement on Jan. 23 asking the Idaho Legislature to not approve it. The resolution failed to make it to a vote.
“The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes support creating a safe, caring and responsible environment that promotes respect for all citizens within Idaho public schools,” according to the statement. “We do not condone stereotpying, discrimination, respect for all citizens within Idaho public schools.”
A Republican official in neighboring Utah proposed a similar resolution that drew a protest at the state capitol on Jan. 18. The proposed resolution comes after a Utah school changed its name from “Redmen” to “Reds.”
In Wisconsin, the Oneida Nation issued a statement on Jan. 24 objecting to the use of Native mascots and logo and is “frustrated” by the decision of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. A resolution by a local school board to require school districts to retire Native American mascots made it up to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards in January but was rejected by a 300-school board delegation, according to WUWM.com.
“You cannot deny or disprove that racially-based mascots are offensive, hurtful and damaging to the many people we all represent, our neighbors, families and children,” Vice Chairman Brandon Yellow Bird Stevens said in a statement. “If we are to change the way our children see one another as equals in the future, we must support that initiative in our school systems, and it must begin with policy change.”
Some changed and then changed it back.
A Connecticut high school changed its mascot in 2019 from “Redman” to “Red Hawks.” The change didn’t last long as a newly elected school board voted to bring it back in January. Both votes fell on party lines, with democrats voting for the change, according to a report by the Hartford Courant.
Asking for change is far from new. Health organizations have encouraged the retirement of Native mascot imagery for years as it has health effects on young people in Indian Country and enforces stereotypes of Native people, among other reasons. The American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association recommended the retirement of stereotypical Native imagery mascots.
Does mascot imagery reinforce Native stereotypes?
In late 2019, a sports editor at a New Mexico newspaper was sharing high school basketball updates on social media and tweeted “scalps” after a non-Native team beat the Shiprock Chieftains, a team from the Navajo Nation. The sports editor apologized but not much else came from it.
In Arizona, the fallout from a 2019 high school volleyball game in October where players from Salt River High School, a school on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in the Phoenix metro, were verbally harassed with slurs and gestures by opposing fans, has led to conference officials to forming a committee that will develop cultural competence policies. The school has offered to provide cultural sensitivity training to the Canyon Athletic Association, the sports league that includes Salt River.
Related story: The Genocide Bowl (or what most people call Super Bowl LIV)
The history of the NFL’s Kansas City franchise.
Kansas City’s professional football franchise has had its controversial nickname since the 1960s. The team was not named after a Native figure and continues to capitalize on its stereotypical Native imagery and gestures. The nickname comes from a former Kansas City mayor who played a role in the city acquiring a professional football team. The mayor, Harold Roe Bartle, was known as “Chief” and wasn’t Native, but claimed to have been given the name Lone Bear by an Arapaho leader.
On Nov.1, the Kansas City Star newspaper’s editorial board said the football team’s “offensive and outdated” tradition, the “Arrowhead Chop,” must go. “The divisive chant is racially insensitive and entirely unnecessary,” the editorial said. November is Native American Heritage Month and the editorial was published on the heels of St. Louis pitcher and Cherokee Nation citizen Ryan Helsley being mocked by fans of the professional Atlanta baseball team during a playoff game. Atlanta is known for its stereotypical chop chant.
Kansas City’s stadium is called Arrowhead Stadium and features giant lettering of the team’s nickname in the endzone and an arrowhead logo with the letters “KC” in the center at midfield. The AFC championship trophy is named after Kansas City’s original owner, Lamar Hunt.
For 21 years, Kansas City has trotted out KC Wolf, a fuzzy grey wolf character with a red Kansas City shirt and baggy pants, as it’s official on-field mascot and face of the franchise during games, community-related activities like visiting schools and organizations. The wolf has its own page on the team’s website.