Every single sports team, professional or otherwise, with a Native American name, mascot and/or logo should have to change it or be banned from their field of play. And, since they’ll be playing on Sunday — for the second weekend in a row, on a field emblazoned with the words “End Racism” — why not start with the Kansas City Chiefs? They’re as bad as any in the bilious lot.
The issue isn’t that “Chiefs” — unlike the recently removed longtime moniker of the Washington, D.C., NFL team — is a racial slur. Rather, the issue at hand, which has been the issue at hand for decades, is that appropriating a revered title that can only be earned by a small number of individuals in Native communities and applying it to a sports term to denote a kind of physical aggression is part and parcel of the dehumanization and commodification of an entire race of people.
On the professional sports level alone, that includes the Chicago Blackhawks, the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Chiefs: Each holds open the door to “playing Indian,” mocking Native Americans and making excuses for people who want to do those things. On the college and high school level, there are myriad more such examples, like the “Savages,” the name of a high school’s teams in Lamar, Colorado, which locals adamantly argue has nothing to do with Natives — even though their mascot looks like a constipated Indian.
So if the NFL is trying to put an end to racism in America, that ought to include an end to enabling racism against Natives in America, and “playing Indian” is as racist — and as American — as it gets.
Think about it: If you were raised in the U.S., you’ve been “playing Indian” since you were old enough to be a cutesy little Indian in your school’s Thanksgiving play. But it’s not actually cute; it actually teaches kids that it’s OK to play as another race when it’s not.
This early normalization of anti-Native racism, coupled with the insistence of maintaining and defending Native-themed team names from the local high school up through the NFL, enables waves of loathsome, anti-Native racist behavior in parking lots, stands, bleachers and sometimes in the end zone.
The Kansas City Chiefs have, at least, begun to address the fans who have a habit of “playing Indian” in their stands, but they don’t go far enough. (In football terms, they barely make it to the 15-yard line.) Less than a month after the Washington Football Team abandoned its racial slur of a name, the Chiefs stated in a press release that they were, effective immediately, banning fans from donning faux Native American headdresses at their home games as well as prohibiting anyone from entering Arrowhead Stadium wearing “American Indian-themed face paint” (though the face paint one normally sees on fans at Chiefs games is rarely keeping with any Native American tradition).
But team executives were not willing to let every Chiefs tradition go. “As allowed by NFL guidelines and the City of Kansas City Health Department for the coronavirus-impacted 2020 season, we will continue with many of the traditions that we have introduced over the past six years, including the Blessing of the Four Directions, the Blessing of the Drum, as well as inviting members of tribes with a historic connection to our region to participate in our American Indian Heritage Month Game,” the press release said.
Please, someone tell the Hunt family, who own the Chiefs, that our concern isn’t just with a few chicken-feather headdresses and fanatics in so-called “war paint;” it’s with the fetishizing of Natives and the misappropriation — the theft — of our culture, our traditions and our likenesses.
Further, at least according to the press release, the Chiefs are only banning headdresses and warpaint at their home stadium. Their new rules don’t seemingly apply when the Chiefs are the visiting team, which potentially means any K.C. fan can show up at the rival field looking like Felipe Rose from the Village People. (It’s almost winter, people; Native Americans always wore pants in winter.)
All of this is why when the NFL tweeted an image of players warming up on the field at Arrowhead Stadium before the Chiefs’ first game last week and “end racism” was painted in the end zone, social media was immediately reeling. The juxtaposition of a civil rights message with clear and unequivocal racism against Natives is out-of-step with the times.
Sadly, though, it’s still not common for white folks — particularly wealthy white folks — to fail to include Natives in discussions on racism and police brutality, despite the fact that we are killed in police encounters at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in the United States.
Still, as Natives, we savor the small wins because we don’t get a lot of them. So we are glad at the demise of the Washington Football Team’s name and at moves in the right direction on the part of the Chiefs — but we still recognize that they fall seriously short of what needs to be done, which is to change the name of this team and every team that appropriates Native culture as a symbol for athletic aggression. It was never OK — but if it’s time to “end racism,” let’s really end racism.