In July 2020, amid widespread protest against racial injustice in the United States, the then-Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL) announced that they would retire their name.
The National Congress of American Indians, which had campaigned for a name change for decades, praised the move: “We commend the Washington NFL team for eliminating a brand that disrespected, demeaned, and stereotyped all Native people, and we call on all other sports teams and corporate brands to retire all caricatures of Native Americans that they use as their mascots,” the organization said in a statement.
Almost exactly a year later, the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball (MLB) became the Cleveland Guardians. Many states have passed resolutions encouraging high school sports programs to abandon representations of Indigenous Americans in their names and mascots.
So what’s the deal with the Kansas City Chiefs?
Of the U.S. sports teams whose branding retains ties to Native culture, the perennial NFL heavyweights are the most high-profile. In August 2020, five months after Kansas City won Super Bowl LIV and just one month after their rivals in the nation’s capital went through with their change, Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt confirmed that the team’s name would remain. So would the name of their home field, Arrowhead Stadium.
To make sense of the Chiefs’ decision at a time when teams across the Midwest and the country are adopting monikers and imagery not dependent on appropriation, Midstory spoke with two experts. Jason Edward Black is a professor of Communication Studies at UNC Charlotte and the co-author of “Mascot Nation: The Controversy Over Native American Representations in Sports.” Gaylene Crouser is the executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center and an organizer with Not In Our Honor, a group that protests the use of Indigenous imagery in sports.
One explanation for the staying power of the Chiefs is that the name is less obviously pejorative than those of other teams.
While writing Mascot Nation, Black asked a national sample of 1,076 people to evaluate the “acceptability” of various team names. “Chiefs” had the second highest acceptability score, after only “Braves.” “Redskins” and “Indians” ranked second- and third-least acceptable, respectively, with only “Savages” scoring lower.
The Cleveland Indians, in addition to bearing a less acceptable name, also employed a highly stereotypical mascot until 2018. “Chief Wahoo” had red skin and a hooked nose and wore an eagle feather in his cap.
In comparison, the Chiefs seem rather innocuous.
“In the case of Kansas City, they’re at this really interesting sweet spot,” Black said. “People can say the name isn’t as bad as Washington and the logo and visuals aren’t as bad as Cleveland.”
So generic is the Chiefs name that some claim it originated in reference to H. Roe Bartle, the mayor of Kansas City when the team relocated there from Dallas, Texas in 1963. Bartle’s nickname was “Chief.”
“While the origin of the team’s name has no affiliation with American Indian culture, much of the club’s early promotional activities relied heavily on imagery and messaging depicting American Indians in a racially insensitive fashion,” reads an official Chiefs webpage titled “Celebrating American Indian Heritage.”
Crouser questions the reasons behind Bartle’s nickname, pointing to his habit of donning a chicken-feather headdress and referring to himself as “Lone Bear.” She agrees, however, that the word “chief” is not inherently offensive.
“It’s not necessarily that specific word like it was for the Washington team,” she said. “If they wanted to get a Dalmatian and some fire hoses and be the ‘Fire Chiefs’ or however they wanted to do it, then that would be good. But because they have tied it to Native American imagery and stereotypes, I think it’ll be difficult to untie those things.”
Even if “chief” doesn’t carry the same racist connotations as other monikers, Crouser doesn’t believe that any Native-derived team name can truly capture what it means to be Indigenous.
“I just disagree that you can embody everything that we are as human beings in any kind of little mascot or caricature,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things that contribute to the erasure of who we are as contemporary human beings.”
For their part, the Chiefs began consulting with a local “American Indian Community Working Group” in 2014 in an effort to “better honor American Indian culture.” Since then, the team has banned fans from wearing headdresses and face paint in the stadium and has decommissioned their “Warpaint” mascot. But the franchise maintains that “the name and the name of the stadium are not things that are high on [the Working Group’s] list.”
While Crouser acknowledges that opinions vary, she is skeptical of the idea that a large number of Indigenous Americans approve of appropriation.
“They do find human shields to hold up,” she said. “They find people that say, ‘Oh, it’s fine. We are honored, it doesn’t bother us.”
The notion that the Chiefs brand celebrates the bravery and leadership of Indigenous elders provides a justification for its continuation unavailable to teams whose names and imagery are more clearly derogatory. One contributor to the fan-run outlet KC Kingdom captured the sentiment: “I can see why Indigenous people would be offended by the name and traditions, but I stand by the belief that it should be viewed as an honor and it always has been with good intentions.”
Black, meanwhile, stresses that the term “chief” should not be taken lightly.
“Chief is a title that is earned over an entire lifetime and is revered,” he said. “Of course, it’s a good term, but not for a sports franchise to broker around and play around with.”
Another major sticking point in conversations about altering the Chiefs brand is the extent to which the Chiefs fandom escapes the purview of the team.
Crouser said she still sees fans wearing headdresses outside of the stadium before they head in, even after the ban. Fans still perform the open-handed “tomahawk chop” routinely at games, even after the team’s cheerleaders began doing the celebration with closed fists.
To help discourage ongoing behavior like this, Crouser suggested that the stadium emcee could stop playing the song that prompts the “chop” over the loudspeakers, for example. But she feels the culture surrounding the name and iconography of the team helps explain why seemingly simple changes are slow to develop.
“You’re always going to have people reaching back to how it was prior,” she said.
Local attachment to the imagery of the Chiefs even extends beyond the realm of sports: “If you’re not from Kansas City, you don’t hear that [“chop”] song being played as the background for the grocery store commercial, or the tagline of ‘Can’t Stop the Chop, We’re Chopping Prices,’” Crouser said.
“One of the things about sports, generally speaking, is that community-building piece of it, and that being able to have that chant or that fight song or that gesture or something that can really bring people together in a collective way,” Crouser said. “It’s just really unfortunate that in Kansas City’s case, it’s so racist.”
According to Black, the centrality of Chiefs culture to life in Kansas City exemplifies how sports transcend the playing field.
“Being a fan of a sports team means that you are wearing on your corporeal body the imagery of that team,” he said. “This is a full investment of one’s identity. People are willing to fight physically, verbally across team lines to defend and to represent their sports teams.”
Black believes it’s no coincidence that the earliest appropriations of Indigenous peoples in sports emerged during the last of the Indian Wars in the late nineteenth century, when the reservation system was taking full effect.
“There’s this imaginary that this conquered people who were once our enemies are now our sort of playthings or menagerie to mess around with,” he said. “What human imagery really captures war and violence and ruggedness? And that’s where teams turn — the Boston Braves and the early Cleveland Indians, and it kind of rolls from there.”
For Black, that history has bled into a “presentism of colonization” seen in the Chiefs. Far from arbitrary, the name reflects a “white imaginary of what competition, ruggedness, masculinity ought to mean” — hence many Kansas Citians’ attachment to it.
A final barrier to widespread support for a name change might be a lack of visibility for Indigenous Missourians. Just over 2% of people identify as American Indian or Alaska Native in the state, which is not home to any federally or state-recognized tribes.
Crouser feels that many Chiefs fans simply don’t think about the present-day populations their practices and paraphernalia often offend.
“People just really grow up appropriating our culture, whether it’s through their church camp, or through the Boy Scouts, or through just being a red-blooded American,” she said. “It’s been happening for so long that people fail to see that there’s any harm in it.”
In an effort to combat that erasure, Crouser and the Indian Center are partnering with Kansas City Public Schools on a curriculum around Native American history after the turn of the twentieth century, including the American Indian Movement.
“If we can include everything from that point forward, and even bring about contemporary Indigenous worldviews and lifeways and that sort of thing into a larger public eye, I think that will help a lot for people to get that understanding of these stereotypes and this racism that is really just a continuation,” she said.
Certainly, the Chiefs are more in the public eye than ever before. They’re led by Patrick Mahomes, regarded by some as the most talented quarterback in the history of the game, who pulled off a heroic win at the 2023 Super Bowl.
Black thinks this increased scrutiny might accelerate a potential name change.
“That’s like what the Greeks would call kairos — a kairotic moment, an ultimately opportune time to focus attention,” he said. “Watch what happens when Kansas City dips down, when Mahomes is traded away, or they start to lose, or Buffalo and Cincinnati take over that conference. Watch what happens then, because the groundswell is there, suddenly they’re no longer a powerhouse, and now you can really focus an aperture even more.”
When the Cleveland Guardians rebranded in 2021, they did so after missing the playoffs for just the second time in six years.
Crouser noted that the Washington Commanders, as they’re now known, yielded to a name change primarily due to mounting economic pressure from their sponsors. Like Black, she doubts that the owners of the Chiefs are likely to have “some kind of an awakening of their conscience,” especially when business is booming.
But at the very least, she hopes that heightened awareness of Native opposition to the Chiefs brand will open up other conversations.
“As long as we’re still seen as this two-dimensional caricature that only exists in the past as that savage warrior, it’s really harder for people to take us seriously when we’re talking about environmental racism, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and those kinds of things,” she said. “So that’s why this work is just part of what we do. Because we are living, breathing human beings, and we’re trying to still be who we were created to be.”