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The Super Bowl-Bound Chiefs Unite Kansas City But Alienate Some Native Americans

Charlie Riedel
AP Photo
Kansas City Chiefs fans chant and do the chop during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

The Kansas City Chiefs will face the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in Miami, giving Kansas City a moment of relative unity in a divisive time for the country. But the good feelings are tempered for Native Americans, some of whom find the imagery surrounding the team racist and demeaning.

Union Station is festooned with banners and signs honoring the Chiefs. Cheery fans filled the historic train station over the weekend, trading phones to take pictures of each other’s families.

“Nobody cares about like all the division in the world right now,” said Gina Williams. “We're all just excited about our team. It's our team.”

Williams was at Union Station with her mother. Both women had puffed up their hair with headbands emblazoned with the team’s arrowhead logo, attempting to replicate the signature hairstyle of quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Chiefs fan Tom Schipper agreed getting back to the big game after fifty years has smoothed over some differences.

“It brought everyone together, the town together,” said Schipper. “Black, white, red, yellow, we all won, and we’re going to carry that on to Miami.”

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Gina Williams and her mother Patricia Williams came to Union Station to enjoy the atmosphere.

Some Native Americans find the pre-game drum ceremony, fan chants and tomahawk chop offensive.

“When you see this on TV or in person, this distortion in kind of dehumanizing imagery has lasting negative impacts for us,” said Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians.

Allis says the chanting, chopping and drumming conger up an idea of a homogenous mythical people, and demean actual Native Americans.

“We're, 574 federally recognized tribes,” said Allis. “Vibrant communities, steeped in tradition and custom that have passed down to generations because it means something to who we are.”

The name Chiefs is problematic for some Native Americans. Despite the arrowhead logo, the moniker was chosen to honor a flamboyant mayor of Kansas City, H. Roe Bartle, who lured the football team here from Texas. Bartle was nicknamed “Chief” but wasn’t Native American.

A bright line

Unlike some other professional, college and high school teams, the Chiefs do not have a Native American mascot. The team also has worked with tribal leaders to educate fans and authenticate some of the Native American imagery it uses.

That said, the Chiefs organization stands by the tomahawk chop, claiming it brings fans together on game day. Though the team claims to discourage American Indian attire, some fans still show up in war paint and war bonnets, to the dismay of proud Native Americans like Danon Hare.

“There's a very visceral feeling of disgust when I see someone painted in red face or see someone who has like a faux warrior outfit on,” said Hare. “It may be reminiscent of some tribe somewhere, but it’s just such a cartoon. It’s a cartoon that is hurtful to me personally.”

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Danon Hare

Danon Hare grew up in Oklahoma in a family immersed in the Pawnee Nation, before moving to Kansas City. He’s proud of his heritage and hates to see it belittled, and yet, he is torn.

“Because, I have a family that has a deep, deep connection to our culture... and I have a son who's really, really passionate about football and specifically the Chiefs right now and the Super Bowl,” says Hare.

Hare is trying to make sure his 9-year-old son recognizes the bright line between rooting for the Chiefs and actual native culture.  

“I've asked him not to do the tomahawk chop in the house,” said Hare.

They make regular trips to Oklahoma for dances and other tribal activities.

“I just want him to know how intricate and how special it is to be Native American. And I don't want him to think that it's something that is an image concocted by a corporation,” says Hare.

But even though the Chiefs organization, and some fans, make Hare’s life more difficult, he loves the players and plans to watch the big game. He wishes the team would do more to show respect for Native American culture.

But, Sunday evening Hare says he’ll be watching the game along with his family, and thousands of other fans, many of them who have never in their lives seen the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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