Kansas City Chiefs face new call to drop ‘insulting’ name and symbol | Native Americans

The Kansas City Chiefs may have won the Super Bowl in an epic game, but for some there will be no victory until the football team changes its name and symbol and its fans stop performing an insulting gesture and chant.

A small but loud group protested outside the stadium hosting the Super Bowl in Arizona on Sunday, aggrieved that the team from the city that straddles the Kansas-Missouri border continues to refuse to drop its name and arrowhead symbol, which Native American leaders class as a racist mascot and symbol that devalues Native traditions.

“When we’re mocked and reduced to a caricature and not seen as human beings, then that affects everything else,” Gaylene Crouser, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center, said on Sunday evening outside the stadium. Crouser, 48, had traveled 1,200 miles from her home for the protest.

Music reminiscent of old-style western movies was played and many in the stadium crowd reveled in using an arm gesture and singing chant known as the tomahawk chop, which has long echoed around the team’s Arrowhead stadium in Kansas City, angering Native Americans and others.

For this year’s Super Bowl, which moves from place to place and this year was held in Glendale, on the outskirts of Phoenix, the Arizona state capital, the National Football League took significant steps to represent Native communities, especially as there are an estimated 43,000 Native Americans living in Phoenix, making it the US city with the third largest Indigenous population.

The league commissioned Lucinda “La Morena” Hinojos for the branded art for the event. It was the first time an artist who identifies as Chicana – of Mexican descent – and Native American has had their work featured on the event’s signage and tickets.

And at the half-time show, headlined by Rihanna, Colin Denny, a deaf member of the Navajo Nation, performed America the Beautiful in a mix of American Sign Language and North American Indian Sign Language.

The dance group Indigenous Enterpriseperformed during the week’s buildup to the game, broadcast live around the world, and the NFL also made an Indigenous land acknowledgement – a move still uncommon and regarded as progressive by many.

But to protesters, the Kansas City Chiefs’ stubborn adherence to its offensive themes overshadowed the league’s improvements.

Demonstrators on Sunday had traveled from as far as California and Washington DC for the event, as well as from Kansas City and various parts of Arizona, to gather outside the State Farm stadium in the fast-growing Phoenix suburbs, demanding that the team drop their name and symbol.

Protesters chanted “stop the chop” and “change the name”. They played drums, sang, ululated and cheered, the demonstration met by many cars honking in support.

The Kansas team in 2020 banned fans from wearing fake headdresses and Native-themed so-called war paint – but some game goers do it anyway.

On Sunday, one middle-aged white woman sporting a Kansas City Chiefs jersey and a fake feather headdress, cigarette and Budweiser in hand, laughed and jeered at the protesters. “Insolent racist,” one protester yelled back in Spanish.

Meanwhile a young white man heckled the protesters, flapping his arms like a bird while his friends yelled profanities and filmed him.

The Chiefs certainly aren’t the first NFL team to face criticism over their name. Last year, the DC-based team now called the Washington Commanders rebranded themselves after years of complaints that the team’s previous name was a slur against Native Americans, with a violent connotation.

Indigenous activists have engaged in a decades-long fight urging sports teams to drop the damaging team names, mascots and symbols that perpetuate racist stereotypes across the US, where many professional teams but also almost 2,000 US public-sector schools have a mascot that appropriates or demeans Native American traditional cultures, according to the National Congress of the American Indian.

Manny Pino, 71, a member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe and retired sociologist and professor of Native American history at Arizona State University and Scottsdale Community College, said wearing a fake headdress went beyond disrespect for an Indigenous chief, a role regarded as a sacred and towering responsibility for a selfless community leader.

“We consider it desecration,” Pino said. “It takes a lot of sacrifice for an individual to have that honor, to just get one eagle feather. When you [traditionally] wear a headdress, you’ve made a sacrifice on behalf of not only yourself, but on behalf of your people.”

Rhonda LeValdo, 48, also a member of the Acoma Pueblo tribe, who’d traveled from Kansas, said her community is inundated daily with reminders of the casual racism that accompanies Native mascots.

“You hear ‘the chop’ everywhere – in grocery stores, on the radio, on billboards, in ads, on television … You can’t go anywhere” without hearing it or seeing depictions of the gesture mimicking axing, LeValdo said, who works as a media instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University, in Lawrence, Kansas.

When the Super Bowl kicked off, the protesters formed a circle. Amanda Blackhorse, a longtime activist and member of the Navajo Nation, took the megaphone. She said there were signs of progress and she saw fewer fake headdresses than previous years.

But she added: “Our struggle continues.”

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