Indian Country Today
Tom Brady. Patrick Mahomes. Tampa Bay vs. Kansas City. Super Bowl LV.
The biggest Sunday in American sports has nearly arrived, and like most years, the storylines abound.
Will Brady cement his legacy as possibly the greatest quarterback of all-time?
Can Kansas City become the eighth NFL team to win back-to-back championships?
And of course, there is the yearslong call for action that the Kansas City Chiefs change their name.
Momentum against Native-themed mascots has picked up in the past year. Two of Native advocates’ biggest targets, the Washington Football Team and Cleveland Indians, announced their organizations were moving on from their respective names.
At the high school level, the progress has occurred more frequently.
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Just this week, a school in Ohio announced its new school mascot after previously having a Native-themed one. The move followed a string of similar changes by high schools across the U.S.
The National Congress of American Indians in 2020 communicated with more than 175 school districts with Native-themed mascots or names.
“As momentum continues, communities that engage in these discussions are increasingly likely to discontinue use of their ‘Indian’ mascots,” a recent email from the organization’s “Ending ‘Indian’ Mascots” campaign stated.
With all that being said, it’s unclear how close the Chiefs are, or not, to changing their name.
To put further pressure on the team, the organization Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality is holding a protest of the name outside Raymond James Stadium hours before kickoff.
One of the group’s co-founders, Alicia Norris, Oneida, Onondaga and Cherokee, said it didn’t take long to decide to do something.
“When we found out who was going to the Super Bowl, we went, ‘What? They're coming to our backyard, Kansas City?’ We have to do something,” Norris said. “This is what we stand for. We stand for Indigenous rights.”
In addition to the protest, a coalition of Native American groups has put up billboards in the Kansas City area to protest the tomahawk chop and Chiefs' name. The coalition has also hired a plane to fly around the area of the stadium.
Norris believes part of the momentum is due to a public awakening, greater education and teams being more socially aware.
“I think the teams are starting to realize that if they don't change, they're going to be on the wrong side of history,” Norris said. “It's better to do it earlier on than be one of the last holding out. You lose your credibility.”
However, even if the team were to change the name, the culture is so ingrained in the city’s psyche, changing mindsets will take time, says Gaylene Crouser, executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center.
Crouser, citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, recalled a moment that went viral in 2013 when a local Sonic restaurant had a blatantly racist sign that read, “KC CHIEFS' WILL SCALP THE (deleted) FEED THEM WHISKEY SEND - 2 - RESERVATION."
“Just the fact that somebody thought that that was OK to put on their business sign, just blew my mind,” Crouser said. “I saw that picture make its rounds on the internet, but it's just that kind of racism is just so commonly accepted.”
In a statement before the season, Kansas City announced a policy of prohibiting fans wearing headdresses from entering Arrowhead Stadium. Additionally, the team said it would ask fans to remove “culturally appropriated face paint” before being allowed in, and it is undergoing a “thorough review process” of the tomahawk, or “Arrowhead,” chop.
It appears similar steps are being taken ahead of the big game on Sunday.
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An email to the NFL communications office went unreturned; however, the Tampa Bay Times reported the NFL and Raymond James Stadium will heed the restrictions Kansas City put in place at their home stadium.
“For Super Bowl Sunday at the stadium, we are employing the same policies that exist at Arrowhead Stadium for these items,” said Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the league.
Chiefs president Mark Donovan said barring face paint and headdresses from its stadium was a “big step.”
“You are going to have opinions on all sides on what we should and shouldn’t do,” he added. “We’re going to continue to have those discussions. We’re going to continue to make changes going forward, and hopefully changes that do what we hope, which is respect and honor Native American heritage while celebrating the fan experience.”
However, Norris described the chop as “extremely disrespectful," saying it “conjures up images of Native Americans, Indigenous people as savages."
“Now the team wants to backtrack and say we are being culturally appropriate and we are being respectful of Indigenous people by saying no headdresses," she said. “And that is a good start, but the fans are still operating as if it is an Indigenous-type atmosphere because you are still called the Chiefs. And you can still do this movement that looks like a tomahawk chop, but we are going to call it a drum beat instead. It is kind of silly. Just change it."
In an email to Indian Country Today, Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, cited research published in 2020 that shows that 65 percent of Native peoples surveyed are offended by the use of the tomahawk chop by fans. On top of that, 70 percent are offended by fans wearing headdresses; and 65 percent of Native youth are highly offended and opposed to Native mascots.
Echo Hawk continues to urge the NFL to ban the use of Native-themed mascots.
“Sports have the power to influence and inspire people of all ages, especially our youth. It is time for the NFL to recognize the weight of this responsibility,” Echo Hawk said.
One popular argument for fans of teams with Native-themed mascots is that the monikers honor Native people. It’s unclear how many know the origins of the Kansas City team name.
The Chiefs nickname has more to do with the mayor who helped lure the franchise from Dallas in 1963 than it does with any tribe.
Mayor H. Roe Bartle was a large man known as “The Chief” for his many years of leadership in the Boy Scouts. Team owner Lamar Hunt reportedly named the team the Chiefs in honor of Bartle.
While getting to future Super Bowls is no sure thing, Kansas City is primed to be in the mix for years to come with Mahomes and co. at the helm. This all but ensures the mascot debate will not cede the spotlight either.
With each passing year, support from non-Native allies seems to grow. Ahead of the game, the Kansas City Star Editorial Board expressed its belief that it’s unfair to ask opponents of Native-themed mascots to continue to wait for change.
“Someday, the Chiefs will change their name. It’s inevitable. That day may be 20 years from now, or next week. But it will happen, and the team — and our region — will be better for it.”
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
The Associated Press contributed to this report.