That has attracted increased attention from Native American groups and indigenous rights advocates as the team steps onto one of the world’s biggest sporting stages. The Chiefs have largely escaped the scrutiny of other sports franchises that employ Native American imagery and other tropes, including the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians.
That could change as Kansas City plays in its first Super Bowl since the 1969 season, when the team’s logo depicted a bare-chested man in a loincloth, headdress and moccasins, wielding a hatchet and holding a football.
“This is a team with a Native-oriented name at the largest sporting event in the world,” Vincent Schilling, associate editor at Indian Country Today and a member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe, said in a phone interview. “Hundreds of millions of people are going to see what I consider disrespect and disregard for Native culture.”
Some Kansas City fans still come to games wearing mock-Native regalia, including headdresses, costume eagle feathers and face paint. Before the opening kickoff, the team asks a dignitary, often a former player, to bang a war drum while surrounded by cheerleaders. The franchise refers to the Kansas City metropolitan area as “Chiefs Kingdom.” A cheerleader rides a horse named “Warpaint” through pregame festivities and around the field when Kansas City scores.
Some American Indian leaders and Native rights activists have called on the team and fans to revisit some of those customs ahead of Sunday’s game.
“These mascots reinforce a stereotype and incorrect symbolism that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated,” Kevin Allis, the chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the Forest County (Wis.) Potawatomi community, said in a phone interview.
“And you know why that’s painful for us? Because we’re far from that. We’re 574 federally recognized tribes that have very sophisticated governments and communities and are organized and have smart and talented folks. The belief that we were uncivilized and uneducated, based on a warrior-savage myth and things that aren’t really true, has caused this federal government, this country, at least two times in American history to either try to assimilate or terminate the American Indian from society.”
The Chiefs said in a statement that the organization has for six years “engaged in meaningful discussions with a group comprised of individuals with diverse Native backgrounds and experiences.”
“All along, our goal has been to use our platform to create an awareness and understanding of Native cultures, as well as celebrate the rich traditions of multiple tribes with a historic connection to our region,” the statement continued. “We continue to celebrate American Indian Heritage Month at Arrowhead Stadium each November, and through that, have continued to educate our fans and build additional relationships in the Native community. While we are pleased with the collaboration and the work that has been done over the past six years, we know the importance of continued dialogue on these topics.”
Some critics draw an even harder line and have urged high school, college and professional sports teams to drop any use of Native American imagery in their names and symbols. Some states have restricted the use of Native American nicknames in public schools, and dozens of schools have altered or eliminated such nicknames and logos in recent decades.
“I encourage both the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs organization to move away from any and all depictions of Native Americans as mascots, in chants and any other form of team promotion,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement. “Now is the time for meaningful dialogue on cultural appropriateness of Native Americans in this country. Too many Americans are unaware that our tribal nations and proud American Indian people are thriving and remain a vital part of the American tapestry.”
The Kansas City franchise moved from Dallas in 1963 and changed its name from the Texans to the Chiefs that year, in part to honor Mayor H. Roe Bartle, a white man known as “Chief” in local political circles. He was also involved heavily with local Boy Scout troops, and he started his own Scouting society called the “Mic-O-Say Tribe” that leaned on Native stereotypes.
The famous war chant and corresponding tomahawk chop came much later. They were created by the Florida State University “Marching Chiefs” band and football student section in 1984. Baseball’s Braves adopted the cheer in the early 1990s, and the Chiefs picked it up around the same time.
Florida State has sought guidance from the Seminole Tribe of Florida on how to use the tribe’s legacy to honor its athletic teams, and the Seminole people fought the NCAA when the group’s leaders tried to force the university to change its mascot in 2005.
The Braves cut back on use of the tomahawk chop during last season’s playoffs after St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said the chant was disrespectful. The Braves said they would not play the accompanying war chant while Helsley was in the game.
The Chiefs have consulted with the American Indian Center of the Great Plains about the team’s imagery and customs, including its use of the pregame war drum, and a leader of that group told the Kansas City Star in 2017 that fewer fans were coming to games in face paint and headdresses. But the tomahawk chop remains a staple of the home-field experience. The Star’s editorial board in November called for the team to do away with the chant, calling it “a bad look for Kansas City — and an affront to Native Americans.” The team has reportedly asked broadcasters not to televise fans wearing headdresses or Native American regalia costumes at Arrowhead Stadium but hasn’t heeded calls from some indigenous groups to ban them from the facility.
“I think it all should go,” said Bethesda’s Josh Silver, whose group, Rebrand Washington Football, advocates for the Redskins to change their nickname. “Obviously a swastika on a helmet would cross the line. It’s cultural appropriation and very insensitive. It’s completely wrong and a misrepresentation of the culture.”
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and his son were photographed in June wearing mock headdresses after the younger Hunt was elected “Cherokee Chief” at a Bible summer camp. The Hunt family is not of American Indian descent.
“What does that tell you?” Schilling said. “It’s more important to be called a ‘Chief’ by your church group than to honor real Indian country. I think the real issue with all of this is that people look at this like a green light to dress up as an Indian. That’s not cool.”
Schilling didn’t learn much about his Native heritage as a child because his family was worried about the stigma and discrimination that came with being known as an American Indian. He said elements of his ancestral culture were “stolen from me.” It hurts now, he said, to see non-Native people using costume versions of sacred clothing or artifacts to root on a football team.
It’s more problematic, Allis said, when those actions are mixed with behaviors that perpetrate harmful stereotypes of American Indians.
“That’s not cool that a non-Native is parading around holding a Bud Light, wearing a headdress,” he said, “or having a drink in his left hand and doing the tomahawk chop with his right while he has his face painted.”
Schilling, who grew up a 49ers fan, doesn’t want to take the chance of watching — and enjoying — the Super Bowl in case a camera catches celebrating fans insulting his culture, wittingly or not.
“It genuinely is too hard to watch,” he said.
He won’t be tuning in.