The Fight to Defeat the Name of the Kansas City Chiefs

The Fight to Defeat the Name of the Kansas City Chiefs

The Fight to Defeat the Name of the Kansas City Chiefs

As the Kansas City Chiefs compete again in the Super Bowl, it’s time to take their racist name off the national stage.


I was standing in the parking lot amid a drunken horde of fans, some painted in red-face, others wearing hippie headbands with fake black braids made of yarn. Suddenly, a massive white man, drunk and bedecked in a faux-feather headdress, came barreling at me, pointed his finger and yelled, “I’m a quarter Choctaw! I can wear this fucking thing if I want to!

“That’s not how that works!” I shouted back. He stopped and waddled into a crowd of snarling corpulent Coors drinkers, all surrounding a grill and a parapet of coolers.

I knew things were about to get even uglier and fast, and they did. I was there outside of FedEx Field in Landover, Md., at the pregame tailgate to talk to fans of the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins. It was November 23, 2017—Thanksgiving Day (also known as “UnThanksgiving” to Indigenous peoples). I wanted to see if these diehard followers of the team ever met a Native in real life, or if their experience with the First Peoples was limited to watching John Wayne get an evil kick out of murdering Indians on Turner Classic Movies.

An ESPN photographer followed my every move; he wanted to capture the savagery of wild sports fanaticism. By the time I hit my fourth or fifth tailgate, I was once more patiently discussing how rotten and racist it is to play fast and loose with another culture when a group of white men in R-word jerseys began to follow us. “Time to go,” I recall saying. “They’ve got the scent.”

Fast forward three years, and the Washington Football Team finally relinquished its dictionary-defined racial slur of a name. (Later, the team would drop its generic placeholder moniker in favor of the Washington Commanders.) Now, on the eve of Super Bowl LVII, we’re all at the same fraught and awful national tailgate celebration, starring down the barrel of more brutal anti-Indigenous nastiness.

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles will play the Kansas City Chiefs for the NFL championship, and again the Chiefs faithful will watch the team’s players trundle out the fake Indian drum and bang it in the end zone as if they’re off to a war party. Fans will don more faux-feather headdresses and paint their faces red as they do more pregame partying outside Arizona’s State Farm Stadium. All the while, the racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples in these United States will be passively encouraged as an outburst of good old team spirit on the national stage.

Amanda Blackhorse, a Diné activist who was the lead plaintiff against the Washington team and its former name, told me that she’s put together a coalition of protesters to host a march and demonstration outside the stadium before the game. “It’s to make our presence known as Indigenous peoples who have been at the forefront of this fight,” she said. Blackhorse added that the Chief’s chop and the chant is a form of appropriation, and that the ritual beating of the massive drum mocks Indigenous culture and spiritualities.

“I think people act like there’s nothing wrong because they’ve been winning,” she said. “I think that it’s easier to ignore away that there’s a whole controversy behind [the Chiefs’] name—that Natives have been protesting the team for decades and decades.”

Gaylene Crouser, who is Lakota and the executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center, will alongside Blackhorse at the Super Sunday protest and rally. She said that during the regular season, Natives who live in Kansas City and their allies staged regular protest outside of Arrowhead stadium, provoking the ire of white fans. “They chant and chop and yell at us and say some pretty ugly things like ‘get a job’ and ‘F you’ and ‘We’re never going to stop!’ ”

“It’s as if we’re the last race of people it’s okay to be racist toward,” she said.

Psychologists have long called for the abolition of all Indian mascotry. Eighteen years ago, the American Psychological Association found that the language and imagery used by Indian-themed teams and their mascots harm the mental health and stability of children.

“The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning,” former association president Ronald F. Levant said in 2005. “These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and, too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”

Since then, numerous teams and companies have dropped their Indian name or logo. The Cleveland Indians are now the Cleveland Guardians. The insurance company Mutual of Omaha abandoned its Indian head symbol, as did the Leinenkugel beer company. Across the country, elected officials and school districts are taking it upon themselves to do away with Indian mascots for reasons of both cultural sensitivity and child-related mental health.

In 2021, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 21-116 into law, which bans the use of Native Americans as mascots in the state. Prior to the bill, Colorado was home to several school districts with Indian mascots.

In New Mexico on the Navajo Nation, Allie Young, also a Diné, has organized the anti-racism protest and march from her home. She said she knows what to expect, since this is far from her first protest. “We’ll get trash talking, folks mocking us—they’ll tell us to go back to the reservation,” she said. “I invite people to stand with us against this form of racism and racist capitalism.”

Young, who is also a voting-rights advocate for Native communities, said, leading up the game, people are asking her, “What’s the big deal about the Chiefs? It’s just sports.”

“Exactly,” she responds. “What’s the big deal to just change the name and stop with the racist behavior?”

“It’s not a huge ask to simply change the name,” she added. “Those fans will continue to be loyal to that team because that’s where they’re from. We’ve seen that with the Washington football team. They changed their name, and their fanbase is still loyal.”

Back in Phoenix, Blackhorse said the National Football League “doesn’t care about Native people…unless we’re making them money.” And this year is no different.

“The NFL is a billion-dollar industry, and they use us—our image—solely for profit.” She added that league employs seedy tactics, like hiring Natives to make graphics in order to sanitize a long-standing posture of racism and trivialization of Indigenous peoples and their culture. “They like to buy people to make it seem like there’s nothing going on, like there’s no elephant in the room,” she said. “Their goal is to divide and conquer the Native community.”

The activists’ ultimate goal looks a lot more daunting. How do you get a whole nation of people to stop being racist all at once on a Sunday? For starters, it’s worth continuing to insist that the idolization of a mega-million-dollar franchise like the Chiefs significantly harms the health and well-being of Natives and our kids. It’s a lesson that other franchises have come to learn, albeit with a great deal of denial and general teeth-gnashing. But once we reach a critical mass of resistance, we can agree that there’s no place in a just society for racism and those who make excuses for it—especially in the name of their sports god.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy