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Chiefs Pound Out a Better Relationship at Arrowhead Stadium Refurbished Ceremonial Drum Symbolizes Work with American Indian Community Group

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Above image credit: George Levi carefully refurbished the large drum used at Chiefs games. The drum is covered with cowhide, but Levi used a buffalo hide to patch a hole in the drum, ensuring that the animal's power and the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes will be represented at Arrowhead Stadium. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)
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7 minute read

Kansas City Chiefs President Mark Donovan had a list. 

It detailed Indigenous-related imagery that the franchise was reassessing, a response to longstanding charges of cultural appropriation. 

Further down, about fifth item, was the drum. 

The Chiefs first began using a massive drum in the mid-1960s. Pounding the drum had ended at some point, before being brought back in 2012. 

John Learned leapt at the opportunity. 

“I told him he had a problem,” Learned said, recalling the meeting with Donovan several years ago. “He didn’t realize what the drum meant in our culture.” 

Learned schooled Donovan, as he’s has been doing for the entire Chiefs organization since 2014, when the franchise first set up the American Indian Community Working Group, where he’s become a leader. 

“The drum is the heartbeat of our people,” said Learned, who is Cheyenne-Arapaho. “That’s the heartbeat of our society.” 

Chiefs fans might not notice that the large red drum used during pre-game ceremonies at Arrowhead Stadium will have a deeper, richer sound this season. But a lot of folks in Indian country will know. 

On a recent Friday afternoon, a pickup truck with Oklahoma plates pulled into Lot E at the stadium. 

The Chiefs’ drum — nearly six feet in diameter and two feet deep — was in the truck bed, covered by a green tarp. 

A few weeks prior, the owner of the truck, George Curtis Levi, had taken it to Oklahoma, to the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation near where he lives in Mustang, Oklahoma. 

First, a buffalo was slaughtered, chosen from a herd of nearly 800 head managed by the Oklahoma tribes. 

The hide was carefully prepared, soaked and stretched. 

Finally, a piece was cut, and carefully whip-stitched into place, covering a hole in the cattle hide that was used to make the original drum. 

Bison rawhide patch, stitching in half circle on the edge of a cowhide drum.
A buffalo was slaughtered and its hide prepared to make a patch for the massive drum used by the Kansas City Chiefs during home games. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

The patch means more than a simple fix for the drum. 

Before a bison is slaughtered, Levi said, the animal is addressed and talked to, acknowledging its power. 

“We believe part of them, their power, is still in the drum itself,” Levi said. “Their power is emanating from the drum.” 

Putting a piece of their buffalo on the Chiefs’ drum means that part of the Cheyenne-Arapaho people will be permanently at Arrowhead too, Levi said. 

“The bison came to us,” Levi said. “Everything is related to it, our religion, it’s all related to the bison.” 

Delicate Relationship 

Levi and Learned’s brother, Brent Learned of Oklahoma City, refurbished the drum. 

The men found confetti, pieces of grass and dry rot inside the drum, made in 2012 by a man near Baldwin, Kansas. It was also dented, which is not surprising given the pounding that it receives. 

“Literally they beat the heck out of it,” Brent Learned said. “It’s natural material and it can only take so much. It deteriorates over time.” 

Two cattle hides were used in the original. 

Cheyenne-Arapaho people use elk or bison for their drums, which are used weekly, in dances or in sweat lodges. 

“When we make a drum at home, we only use rawhide that we prepare,” Levi said. “This drum, the straps were more like a leather.” 

That meant the sound wasn’t as rich as it is now. 

The irony may be that the pounding of the drum instigates what some find horribly offensive: A stadium full of Chiefs fans chanting in unison, letting loose with what they presume to be a war cry, accompanied by a chopping arm motion. 

The Chiefs organization has made many statements on the controversial “chop.” The team addresses the issue of cultural appropriation in depth on its website

The reality that encompasses the many Native people who proudly work with the Chiefs or consider themselves dedicated fans is encapsulated there: “To expect homogeneity from any community or culture is wrong, and we certainly understand and respect the members of the American Indian community who hold differing perspectives.” 

Refurbishing the drum is a small part of a relationship established between the Chiefs and several regional tribes. 

Black baseball cap with Chiefs logo on the side, and red, yellow white beading on brim.
Craig Wahwahsuck, of the Kickapoo Reservation in Kansas, wore a special ball cap during his day at Arrowhead Stadium. The intricate beadwork was completed by a friend. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Contrary to what some may assume, football is big in Indian country. 

Super Bowl watch parties are held at area reservations when the Chiefs play. 

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs with the Chiefs,” John Learned said. “But I’ve always stayed focused on what the long-term goal is. And we’re getting there now.” 

Relationships can be fragile. Tribal members sense when they’re being slighted, not taken seriously by some. 

But Learned’s approach is all about maintaining a relationship. He knows how his late mother, Juanita Learned, who was the first female chairperson of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes, approached her duties. 

“When you walk away, it’s over,” Learned said. “That’s why I’ve always said, as long as you have a seat at the table, you have somewhat of a voice.” 

It’s a philosophy that has led to negotiations that helped spur the Chiefs to ban fans from wearing headdresses and face paint at the stadium. 

It has also created opportunities. 

Instilling in the Chiefs a recognition about the drum was one. 

“As long as there’s a drum beating, we still have a heartbeat,” Learned said. 

But among the most substantial efforts has been the inclusion of an enrolled tribal member in the annual class of paid interns that the Chiefs hire for an 11-month stint. It’s a selective program that offers young adults the opportunity to work within the business of the NFL, shifting among various departments of the team. 

Two members of tribes have been a part of the program. 

Jim Thorpe, Original GOAT 

Tobias Kaskaske, age 6, held up his artwork. 

He’s the great-grandson of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe. 

An April Sunday at Arrowhead was the second time Tobias had taken part in Chiefs ceremonies honoring Thorpe with a day catering to tribal youth. Many in attendance were from Boys & Girls Clubs based at regional reservations in Oklahoma and Kansas for Iowa and Kickapoo tribes. And youth from Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana also participated.

Along with other youth, Tobias made a two-sided drawing with one side showing a football field with stick figures lined up in formation. 

The Chiefs might not have realized that many of the elders present are also well-known Native American artists with gallery showings and their work collected by museums. 

But it quickly became clear as the adults sat down with their children and began to draw. 

Boy holds blue and green picture
Tobias Kaskaske, a great grandson of the legendary multi-sport athlete Jim Thorpe, visited Arrowhead Stadium in April, as part of a special day for Indian youth. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Both Levi and Learned are artists. Their drawings mimicked some of the work that they sell, depicting Plains Indians in headdress, atop a horse. 

Later that day the two men loaded up the Chiefs’ drum into Levi’s pickup, taking it back to Oklahoma for restoration. 

There are, of course, many people with Native blood, enrolled members of federally recognized tribes and not, who feel differently about the Chiefs. Many of them are critical of the name and traditions like the use of the drum. 

Those views, which hold that the Chief name alone is slanderous to Indigenous people, have received widespread recognition from the media. Small groups of protesters regularly let their feelings be known, often before home games, gathering for a protest organized by the Kansas City Indian Center and the Not in Our Honor Coalition. 

Less recognized is the fact that many Indian people are huge Chiefs fans. 

For some of those fans, the opportunity to spend an afternoon on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium during a day to honor Thorpe wasn’t something to be missed, especially because it catered to their youth. 

Thorpe, an Olympic gold medalists, was a member of the Sac and Fox nation. He was chosen to be the first president of the precursor of the National Football League. In 1920, Thorpe was named the head of the American Professional Football Association when it formed with 11 teams, according to the book, “Jim Thorpe, World’s Greatest Athlete,” by Robert W. Wheeler. 

Two years later, the organization would be renamed the NFL. 

Thorpe’s tremendous athletic accomplishments are celebrated as a pathway to belonging within the world of professional sports. 

So is the experience of being on the field at Arrowhead, ushed by elders, to play a game of flag football. 

And to take a few photos in spots like the Chiefs locker room. 

The space occupied by quarterback Patrick Mahomes was particularly popular. 

Mary Thorpe, the granddaughter of the football great, recognizes the differing views on the Chiefs and Native culture. 

“People have an opinion about everything,” she said. “So, it is up to you as the group (the Chiefs) to hold yourself to a standard to do better. Reaching out to the Native American youth, I think, that is way to go.” 

Woman seated in gray skirt. Man holding camera and another seated in foreground, dark red shirt.
Mary Thorpe, granddaughter of Jim Thorpe, sat for an interview with Myltin Bighorn during her visit to Arrowhead Stadium recently. Bighorn, a University of Kansas graduate, was the first tribal member to be awarded an internship by the Chiefs. Randy Estrin, of the Ketchikan Indian Community of Alaska, filmed.

This was the second year that she attended, each time bringing Tobias with her from their home in Jones, Oklahoma. Her father was Jack Thorpe, the youngest son of Jim Thorpe.

She believes that the day spent at the stadium could inspire a child, and maybe one of the youths who attended will end up being an NFL president, like her famous grandfather. 

“Because that is where our future starts, with the children,” Thorpe said. “If we can give them a spark to believe in themselves, think of what they can achieve as adults.”

Mary Sanchez is a senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.


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3 thoughts on “Chiefs Pound Out a Better Relationship at Arrowhead Stadium

  1. I applaud John Learned’s efforts to work with the Chiefs in an effort to get rid of the most irritating (ignorant) displays of attire demeaning to Native Ameicans. I still find myself very uncomfortable with the tomahawk chop, though.
    Working WITH is so much more producting than working against.

  2. Thank you for this article which explains the positives and negatives associated with the chief’s name and other activities. I would like to suggest that the Chiefs acknowledge the land that arrows head Stadium sits on as previously owned and occupied by and then you would name whichever tribes owned and occupied that land. Many organizations in Kansas City are doing this, the Kansas City rep is one as our others and it’s very respectful and a reminder of our country’s history

  3. I wish there was a way to convey this inspiring information to ALL the fans that take part in the tomahawk chop. I’d like to see more focus on our heritage at home games. Chiefs fans are some of the most caring, intelligent, and celebratory people I know. If you have ever been to a game at Arrowhead and your team lost, you know you are still treated with respect and dignity all the way out of the stadium. We pride ourselves on that. Now there’s a common thread among fans and native americans- Pride.

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