When the 2020 NFL season dawned in September, it did so amid a national reckoning over racial injustice and under pressure from its own star players to act.
To demonstrate its commitment to bringing about change, the NFL announced as part of a broad-based, social-justice initiative that its teams would stencil two slogans on their end zones all season: “End Racism” and “It Takes All Of Us.”
“Confronting recent systemic racism with tangible and productive steps is absolutely essential,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the season’s outset. “We will not relent in our work.”
On Sunday, when the Kansas City Chiefs face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, Native American activists will still be looking for signs that their concerns are part of that initiative.
For 16 years, a group called Not in Our Honor has called on the Chiefs to drop their name and abandon decades-old game-day rituals based on Native symbols and traditions. That campaign, which is supported by several national advocacy groups, has gone largely unheeded.
In August, the Chiefs banned fans from wearing headdresses and American Indian-themed face paint to games at Arrowhead Stadium. It also pledged to review the “Arrowhead Chop” that accompanies the deafening war chant that echoes through the stands of the notoriously loud venue. The changes, the Chiefs said in a statement, were the result of six years of dialogue with local leaders from diverse Native backgrounds.
To many activists, those measures are a far cry from the change they seek: an end to the Chiefs name and all Indian-derived imagery and rituals. But the activists are buoyed by Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder’s decision in July to drop the Redskins name and by the broader national movement toward replacing Native team names and mascots.
And to ratchet up the pressure, they are borrowing from the playbook that was instrumental in forcing Snyder’s hand. It included legal action, protests, political pressure and, ultimately, a coordinated effort by investors to push the NFL and the team’s major corporate sponsors – including Nike, FedEx, Bank of America and Pepsi Co. – to call for change.
“Imagine it is your culture and things that are sacred to you are being mimicked and mocked,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, an Oklahoma-based company that works to elevate Native voices and combat traditions and tropes that fuel racism and discrimination, including team nicknames and imagery. “That’s what our children and our people go through. The hypocrisy of the NFL and all the teams saying they’re taking a stand against racism … Enough is enough.”
The effort to persuade the Chiefs to follow suit is part of a broader rethinking of sports teams’ names and mascots at the grade school, high school, college and pro levels.
The Cleveland Indians announced in December that they would drop their team name after phasing out the team’s cartoon mascot, Chief Wahoo, in 2019. Native activists want all teams that use Indian identity, culture and tradition to drop the practice, including the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, MLB’s Atlanta Braves and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.
Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation was the driving force behind the “Change the Mascot” campaign that focused on the Washington NFL team and Snyder, who insisted from the day he bought the storied franchise in 1999 that the Redskins name paid tribute to Native Americans.
“We tried to create awareness of the name that would force a discussion about it, in which people would have to take a side – defend or not defend the use of a dictionary-defined slur,” Halbritter explained. “What really, of course, made everything change was the tragedy regarding George Floyd.”
After Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police May 25 and protests that continued through the summer, a coalition of 87 investment firms and shareholders representing $620 billion in assets called on Washington’s sponsors to sever ties if the team continued calling itself the Redskins.
“What really changed behavior in the summer was holding the NFL and the team and the companies accountable to the words they were saying,” said Kate R. Finn, executive director of First Peoples Worldwide, a program based at the University of Colorado-Boulder that was instrumental in forging that coalition.”The NFL has committed to advance social justice and an end to racism. It would be in line with that commitment to press teams to end the Native names and logos.”
FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the Washington team’s stadium, applied direct pressure. After publicly calling on the team to change its name, FedEx sent formal notice that the company would sever its naming-rights agreement in 2021 if the name wasn’t dropped – a move that would have cost Snyder roughly $45 million in revenue remaining on the 27-year contract.
“Change doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” Halbritter said. “We were able to make the Washington team a symbol of systemic racism and disenfranchisement. But when FedEx, Nike and large corporations got involved, that was the final straw.”
In Kansas, Rhonda LeValdo started working with other Native American college students in 2005 to get the Chiefs to rethink their name, imagery and tradition. They named the effort Not in Our Honor, which is precisely what she felt in the gut each time a Chiefs fan, player or official banged the massive Arrowhead Stadium drum to fire up the crowd of tomahawk-chopping, face-painted spectators in headdresses – and then defended the rituals as honoring her culture.
“The Arrowhead Chop, the drum – when we think about the drum and using cultural items that are not your own, that’s cultural appropriation,” said LeValdo, an Acoma Pueblo native who teaches media communication at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.
It is also damaging, she believes. And research supports that, according to Echo Hawk of IllumiNative. Its 2018 report, “Reclaiming Native Truth,” explored the perceptions that Americans have of Native people, the origins of those perceptions and the impact that the perceptions have on Native people, particularly children. The report found that contemporary Native Americans were, for the most part, invisible to many Americans, And what awareness existed was typically rooted in “toxic stereotypes” found in pop culture and sports-team imagery.
“There is so much education to do with the American public and sports fans,” Echo Hawk said. “It’s important for people to understand that not only do (team names) matter, but also the culture and behavior around the names matter. Things like blackface is regarded as racist and wrong. So, why, then, is red-face and dressing up like Indians any different?”
That education is one component of the post-Washington playbook activists are using. Super Bowl week statements and direct appeals to sponsors are others.
“We at First Peoples Worldwide, along with investors, have continued the pressure on the NFL and sent follow-up letters to sponsors, as well, to let them know there are still racist behaviors and logos in sports that need to be eliminated,” Finn said. “They just don’t have a place in corporate culture.”
Chiefs officials insist the intent behind the team name, imagery and traditions has always been to honor Native people. But the team was named after a white man: H. Roe Bartle, Kansas City’s former mayor, who was instrumental in persuading the late Lamar Hunt to move his Dallas Texans AFL squad to town in 1963.
Bartle was known in local political circles as “Chief.” He was also involved with local Boy Scout troops and started a Native-inspired Scouting society called the Mic-O-Say Tribe.
In recent years, the team has gradually distanced itself from some of its Native-themed traditions – discouraging fans from wearing headdresses, for example, before banning their display at home games outright. But the ban doesn’t extend to game-day tailgaters, nor will it apply to revelers outside Raymond James Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.
At least one advocacy group, Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality, plans to protest the team name outside the venue Sunday, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Closer to home, the Chiefs face calls from the Kansas City Star’s editorial board to rethink their traditions. “We embrace the team’s on-field success, but don’t think a corrosive chant has much to do with it,” the paper wrote in a Feb. 2 editorial. “It isn’t fair to ask groups offended by these symbols to wait even longer for change.”
Echo Hawk agrees.
“The time is now,” she said. “The Washington team changing its name this year, along with hundreds of schools, showed that teams can change their names and life goes on.”
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