The Kansas City Chiefs are ranked No. 1 in the AFC West and come in at No. 4 in the just-released NFL power rankings. Chiefs fans are feeling proud.
But there’s also bullying. Not just by former star running back Kareem Hunt, who was released by the team after video showed him kicking and pushing a woman in a Cleveland hotel in February, but also of an entire minority group.
That's what some health professionals are saying about the team's use of American Indian imagery, along with fans who continue to enjoy traditions like the "tomahawk chop" and wearing headdresses and facepaint.
In May, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (the largest philanthropic health organization in the United States) decided not to honor teams that use what the organization called "racist mascots." Last year, the Chiefs and Washington, D.C.'s NFL team were finalists for an award based on their positive community impact; this year, neither was considered because of their names, the foundation's CEO, Richard E. Besser, wrote in USA Today.
“We could no longer ignore the way everyday injustices impact the health and well-being of people like a young man we met over the course of our dialogue with the Native American community," Besser wrote. "He said his high school peers mock and disparage him, even today, with painful barbs: ‘Do you still live in teepees? Do you use tomahawks? Do you even have Wi-Fi?’”
Rhonda LeValdo, a faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University and host of Native Spirit Radio on KKFI 90.1, told Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann that she sees her students struggle with what popular culture insists they should look like.
She said that the use of racial stereotypes in team names seems to act as a substitute for real information about native people and, she said, "enforce that 'vanishing Indian' stereotype that we are all gone.”
“Wearing a headdress, having long hair, being brown-skinned," she said of that stereotype. "But if you look at our student body at Haskell, it’s very diversified. Those kids that don’t look native, they feel upset about it because people will ask them, 'Well, you don’t look Indian.' What’s an Indian supposed to look like?”
The result is that they’re continually questioning themselves and defending their identity to others, LeValdo said. All students at Haskell are registered members of a federally recognized tribe, of which there are 573.
LeValdo told KCUR that a man once asked her once what she was. When she answered Native American, he said, “‘You are a unicorn! There are no more left.’ Comparing us to an animal that isn't even real.”
She said she reassured the man plenty were left and that they don’t all look like Halloween-costume “Indians.”
Mascots that reinforce such stereotypes are not good for anyone, native or nonnative, said Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist in New York and New Jersey.
He told KCUR that he decided to write an article about the public health implications after learning that every major Native American organization labeled the name of the Washington football team a racial slur.
“I discuss this not as an issue of political correctness but one of public health,” Friedman told Kaufmann.
“It’s part of a bigger picture, which is why this issue is so important," he said. "American Indians are the only group of people in this country, or anywhere else for that matter, who are forced to tolerate racist team names and logos in such a widespread way.”
American Indians also have the worst access to health care, education, and housing of any demographic in the United States, with life expectancy 20 years lower than the average American’s, a dropout rate twice the national average, and a higher likelihood of being homeless than any other group.
LeValdo acknowledged the official explanation that the Kansas City team is officially named after former Kansas City, Missouri, mayor, H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was “The Chief.” Lore has it that he was adopted by the Northern Arapaho tribe of Wyoming in the 1920s while he was the Scout Executive for Boy Scouts of America.
But, LeValdo told Kaufmann, “Being adopted does not make you a Native American.”
It’s not completely clear in his biographical information why Bartle was “Chief.” Though because the football team has a Native American theme, LeValdo said she believed that it came from his work in scouting — that he seems to have earned that nickname in more than one way.
The former mayor was the original “chief” and founder of the Boy Scouts’ Tribe of Mic-O-Say, a leadership enhancement program in parts of Kansas and Missouri. The group uses the names, symbols, and terminology of indigenous peoples. Members dress in “tribal” fashion and take names like Quiet Standing Rock and Painted Elk.
But Bartle was also the “National Chief” of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, which does not appropriate indigenous identity.
Friedman suggested thinking of an individual out in public dressing up as a member of another culture and doing the things they think that other culture does. If someone asks that person to stop, it’s expected that he or she will.
“That’s ultimately considered harassment or bullying. And we have very strict standards on that," he said.
He said he is not only concerned about the native people this affects, but about native and nonnative children who will receive the message that bullying and cultural appropriation is acceptable.
"What we are seeing on a national level is that the National Congress of the American Indian, which is the largest and most representative group of American Indian tribes in the world, is directly and repeatedly asking the NFL to stop doing this, and they don’t.”
Listen to KCUR's conversation with Rhonda LeValdo and Michael Friedman here.