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Chief Concerns in Kansas City Super Bowl Champs Contend with Native Branding Issue

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Above image credit: A Kansas City Chiefs fan wears an Indian headdress as he does a tomahawk chop before the Kansas City Chiefs game against the Tennessee Titans during the NFL AFC Championship football game. (Paul Spinelli | via AP)
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5 minute read

Their Super Bowl victory thrust the Kansas City Chiefs into the limelight, but with that glory came a fresh wave of scrutiny for the appropriation of Native American culture. With the Washington Football Team’s recent name change making national headlines, fans and critics alike are wondering whether the Chiefs could be next to rebrand. 

Contention surrounding the Chiefs is not new. Defenders of the Chiefs brand routinely point out that the origin of team’s name isn’t directly tied to Indigenous peoples in the same way that the Washington Football Team’s former name was, nor is it a slur. 

Update: Thursday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs issued the attached statement.

Among the key points:

  • While we have discouraged fans from wearing headdresses for several years, effective immediately, fans will be prohibited from wearing headdresses into the stadium.
  • Face painting is still allowed for all fans, but any face paint that is styled in a way that references or appropriates American Indian cultures and traditions will be prohibited.
  • Fans will be asked to remove any American Indian-themed face paint prior to passing security screening outside the stadium. We are engaged in a thorough review process of the Arrowhead Chop and plan to have additional discussions in the future.

The origin of the Chiefs’ name, as many super fans know, lies in Harold Roe Bartle and the Tribe of Mic-O-Say — the made-up Native American tribe Bartle created in 1925 as a part of the Boy Scouts of America.

Bartle, nicknamed the “Chief,” was known for his large stature and even larger personality. He played an instrumental role in bringing the Dallas Texans to Kansas City during his tenure as mayor, and in 1963 it was clear that people wanted the new football team to be named in the “Chief’s” honor.

But what some see as a folksy piece of local history represents to others a symbol of oppression and appropriation of Native culture. 

‘Historical trauma’

If you’ve lived in Kansas City for decades, you might have become desensitized to the sight of a shirtless White man donning a headdress and war paint at a tailgate, or fans in mass doing the tomahawk chop.

But not if you are Native American and living in Kansas City. According to Patrick Pruitt, program director with the Kansas City Indian Center, each headdress and swinging of the arm is an affront to his heritage.

“Each feather was earned, it meant something,” Pruitt said. “And so just to throw a headdress on, that you bought off of Amazon or Walmart, I equate it to someone going out wearing a bronze star or a silver star or congressional Medal of Honor. People would come unglued about that. But they don’t see it as the same thing with Native people.”

Patrick Pruitt
Patrick Pruitt. (Contributed)

Pruitt vividly remembers watching western movies and playing “Cowboys and Indians” growing up. He recalls everyone wanting to be the brazen cowboy, and no one wanting to be the Indian. It wasn’t until later in life that he realized just how much the depictions of Native Americans as savage and less-than human informed the way that he thought about his own Chickasaw identity. 

“It’s like a continuation of historical trauma,” Pruitt said. 

This sort of trauma stemming from seeing negative and even racist depictions of one’s race isn’t something that Pruitt has suffered alone. 

In 2005, the American Psychological Association recommended the “immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations.”

The conclusion was based on an ever-growing body of research showing the harmful effects of American Indian mascots on the “social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.” Not only do Native mascots negatively impact Native people, but they have also been shown to create negative stereotypes in the heads of non-Natives. 

Kansas City Chiefs President Mark Donovan recently told the Kansas City Star that he sees the local situation as very different from Washington’s, but the team will continue to have conversations with Native American leaders. 

Over the years, the pleas from members of Kansas City’s Native community haven’t entirely fallen on deaf ears. In 1989, the team changed its mascot from Warpaint the pinto horse (a breed commonly associated with Native Americans) to the KC Wolf. 

There have been other outreach efforts between the Chiefs and the Native American community as well. For several years the team has been collaborating with the American Indian Community Working Group. This relationship has resulted in increased awareness of Native culture, as well as some concrete efforts such as the blessing of the war drum.

But for many, these efforts were never enough and the Washington Football Team’s recent name change felt like a shifting of the tides.

“It gave me hope,” Pruitt said about the retirement of the Washington team’s previous name, which he referred to as “particularly ugly.”

‘Part of my identity’

Defenders of the Chiefs brand have been on social media countering the requests of many Native Americans in the name of protecting their team’s traditions.

Lyle Graversen is a longtime writer for the Chiefs fan website Arrowhead Addict. He recently wrote an article in which he supplied the transcript of his earnest conversation with Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a psychologist and co-author of “The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots.” Graversen asked Dr. Fryberg about her opinions on several popular defenses of the Chiefs name, such as its seemingly innocent origin. 

Lyle Graversen
Lyle Graversen. (Contributed)

“I was trying to figure out a way I could address that without coming across like I was preaching at them, because I am by no means an expert,” Graversen said.

Graversen describes himself as “certainly not someone that’s quick to jump on the ‘cancel culture’ bandwagon just because it’s trendy.” Before he began researching Native perspectives, he was among the throng of non-Native Chiefs fans with an emotional attachment to the team and a resistance to seeing it change. 

He also acknowledged that as a White man with no little to no awareness of Native American history and culture, he needed to listen to Native opinions on the team’s name before declaring his stance on any potential name change. 

Dr. Fryberg, a member of the Tulalip tribe, could not speak for all Native American perspectives, but pointed to data that indicates 67% of Native Americans who are highly engaged with their culture report being offended by being used as mascots. She also pointed out that despite the lack of ties to actual Native history, the use of headdresses and the tomahawk chop by Chiefs fans add up to the perpetuation of imagery that demeans Indigenous peoples. 

So did Graversen change his tune after researching the negative effects of using Native imagery for sports teams?

“Saying I want them to change the name is not accurate,” he stated, citing that the team has become “part of my identity.” 

Graversen said that he could get behind a name change in the case that the Chiefs polled Native Americans on their thoughts, and a majority voted on wanting to change the name and traditions. 

Well, the poll might not have come from the Chiefs, but Dr. Fryberg’s research concluded that a number of studies have found that a majority of Native Americans are offended by being used as caricatures. 

Seeking ‘organic’ change

So then if education and research won’t change the mind of a dedicated Chiefs fan, what will?

“As long as their concentration is on the money they make from branding, they won’t listen,” said Robert Folsom, a Kansas City writer and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. 

Robert Folsom
Robert Folsom. (Contributed)

Folsom has been fighting to end “the chant and the chop” in Kansas City for years. While peacefully protesting Chiefs traditions he has been ignored, insulted, and even told, “Welcome to America.” 

Folsom remains hopeful that things could one day change, though his perspective on where change will come from differs from many others.

Rather than the stakeholders at the top making the choice to definitively ban offensive symbols despite imminent backlash, Folsom wants to see Chiefs fans rise to the occasion and change the team from the ground up.

“It would have to be organic,” he said. “Change would have to come from fans who are educated on our people.” 

Catherine Hoffman reports for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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