Editor’s note, February 5, 2021: This article was originally published before the 2020 Super Bowl. It has been updated to reflect this year’s game.
A self-described lifelong Kansas City Chiefs fan once asked me the meaning of the words that are sung as the crowd performs the “Arrowhead Chop” at Chiefs games, the beloved fan chant made up of a series of literal “oh oh oh”s.
“They don’t mean anything,” I told him, disgusted and annoyed.
“Really, nothing at all?”
My face got hot and I could feel my heart beating fast in my chest. “Nothing,” I repeated.
This is just one example of the uncomfortable situations I deal with as an Acoma Pueblo woman living in the Kansas City area.
This year, my city’s NFL football team, the Chiefs, will be playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, that also means the Arrowhead Chop will be broadcast on millions of screens across the nation, along with fans in headdresses and all that comes with having a team that has a Native American mascot. For years, the national conversation around offensive team mascots that stereotype Native American culture has focused on the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, while the Kansas City Chiefs flew under the radar.
As an educator at Haskell Indian Nations University — the only four-year university for federally-recognized Native tribes — I have done many presentations on the misconceptions about Native American people and the terrible stereotypes that are reinforced by sport mascots like the Chiefs. And every single time it is traumatic to go over the massacres, racism, and genocide carried out against the people indigenous to this country. It is also getting exhausting.
This is the unsanitized truth about American history you probably weren’t taught in school alongside stories of the “noble savage” or fables about peaceful dinners between Natives and Pilgrims on Thanksgiving: European settlers mercilessly raided and killed our people. My own people, the Acoma, Haaku, were attacked by Spanish conquistadors seeking retaliation for an earlier fight that resulted in the deaths of 12 conquistadors. As punishment, they took the right foot of men over the age of 25. They stole many of our women and sold them off as slaves in Mexico. This is not the only massacre rarely taught in schools. There were many California tribes that were decimated due to the gold rush of the mid-1800s. The San Francisco football team, the 49ers, is a direct reference to this period of history.
Today, erasure and oppression of Natives only continues. The movement of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, #MMIW, has been going on for years, but the media mostly ignored it until the killing of pregnant Savanna Grey Wind and the taking of her baby in North Dakota in 2017. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported murder as the third leading cause of death for American Indian Women and Alaskan Natives between the ages of 10-24. In 2016, according to an Urban Indian Health Institute report, there were 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women. Of that total, only 116 were logged into the Department of Justice database.
Then there is the fact that Native Americans are killed in police encounters at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Where is that story being told?
The historical traumas Native Americans face have manifested through loss of our people and the loss of our land. And while we have been told by dominant society to “get over it” and to assimilate, all we Native people want to do is remember and honor those who gave their lives so we could be here. We don’t need to be reminded that general American society is so disinterested in, and disrespectful of, our culture that they choose to perform nonsense chants, while costumed in our clothes, to minimize our entire race into a goofy caricature for sport.
Too many people don’t care about Native Americans unless they can use our likeness for their companies, cars, or costumes. Many people don’t see the Native headdress unless they are at KC or Washington football games, Halloween parties, or music festivals.
So many of the images used in the Kansas City games — the arrowhead, which is specifically Native American; the horse called “War Paint” they prance around the field before the game; the beating drums; and that tomahawk chop — are used in disrespectful and often bastardized contexts. For example, Native people respect the drum, and that drum is never used in the presence of alcohol. War Paint is used to mark our horses and warriors to protect them. Using our cultural ways to “pump up” your team is disrespectful and racist.
I met a man last year in Lawrence, Kansas, who was a member of the Boy Scouts of America’s Tribe of Mic-o-Say, whose members dress up as Native Americans and do powwow dances. The Mic-o-Say are based in Missouri and eastern Kansas and state their mission is “to make ethical choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Scout Law.” The group was founded by H. Roe Bartle, a white man whose Scout moniker “Chief Lone Bear” gave the Kansas City football team its name.
The man I spoke to was also a military veteran. He refused to believe that his dressing up as a Native American is cultural appropriation, instead saying the clothing and dances “honor” Native Americans by continuing their traditions.
I asked him how he feels about people who pretend to be veterans when they are not. That is what the Native headdress equates to: Chiefs went to battle and earned it, much like the medals military veterans earn. But he refused to see the correlation.
It saddens me that the city I work in continues to celebrate the racist “tomahawk chop.” I have heard it at concerts, in commercials for grocery stores. I love Kansas City, especially its diversity. I also worry that this tradition will find another audience of young people who perpetuate it without realizing what it is doing to erase the Native Americans living here.
As part of my classes teaching mass communication, we talk not just about the true history of Native Americans and the impact of stereotypes, but also how we can fix this. Educating students about Native people needs to be a priority in school systems nationwide; educators need to emphasize the real, unsanitized history of how Indigenous people were treated and the problems associated with demeaning stereotypes. Native people need to be included in larger conversations as actual people, not just as entertainment during sports games.
I only hope people will understand this is not about being “politically correct.” It is about understanding and respecting the horrible history our ancestors were subjected to and the policies enacted by the US government to erase our Native identity.
Maybe it is time to start a new tradition of treating all people, including Native Americans, as human beings.
This essay is adapted from commentary in the Kansas City Star and on KansasCity.com.
Rhonda LeValdo teaches media communications at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.