On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will celebrate American Indian Heritage Month at Arrowhead Stadium before their game against the Los Angeles Rams. The pregame festivities are yet another reminder of how far the organization has come in highlighting its rich history and affiliation with Native American customs. And that important work must continue.
To its credit, the organization has made strides in educating its fan base about the do’s and don’ts of appropriating Native American culture. Gone are the days of fans showing up to Chiefs’ games donning headdresses and wearing war paint and other depictions that mock Native American culture. Unfortunately, the racially-insensitive Arrowhead chop remains a game day tradition.
For the past several years, team officials have worked diligently with the American Indian Community Working Group, leaders from a diverse group of Native American communities in the Kansas City area, to learn more about Native American culture and history. Incremental change has followed, but the team must continue to use its platform to help eradicate all such offensive imagery from sports.
“We continue to have important dialogue with local and national groups to identify ways to educate ourselves and our fans by raising awareness of American Indian communities and their rich traditions,” the team wrote in a statement on Indigenous People’s Day in October.
In 2010, after a round of stadium renovations, the franchise brought back its big barrel drum used at the old Municipal Stadium, team officials told us. Legendary players and cheerleaders from years past banged the ceremonial drum as they entered the field. The team didn’t realize the sacred position the drums played in Native American culture, officials said. From discussions with its American Indian Community Working Group, team management would learn about the role of ceremonial drums in Native American culture and why they are sacred.
And just like that, a new tradition was born. In 2019, after another round of improvements at Arrowhead, a drum deck was built. Twice during the season, including Sunday against the Rams, elders from the Native American community will consecrate the drum in an authentic blessing ceremony. The semiannual ritual, team officials said, explicitly gives the team and its honorary guests permission to bang the drum.
We applaud the Chiefs for using the team’s influence to further educate fans about what the blessing represents. But we still hold them accountable for encouraging the chop.
Celebrate team’s history with respect
At some point against the Rams, tens of thousands of Chiefs supporters will join together to perform the Arrowhead chop, the organization’s attempt to normalize the tomahawk chopping motion fans regularly make by having them use a closed fist instead of a flat palm, supposedly to symbolize beating the drum. We know bad habits are hard to break. But to advocates against using Native American mascots and imagery in sports, any chop is demeaning and disrespectful.
The team has been hesitant to distance itself from the gesture, even rebranding the practice in an attempt to avoid ending its use. Yet on more than one occasion in recent seasons, Chiefs fans have been captured on national television cameras doing the open-handed chop.
“I think anytime that is shown on TV, it is gross,” said Rhonda LeValdo of Not in Our Honor coalition, which opposes using Native American mascots and imagery and plans a protest at Sunday’s game. “That makes me ill.”
From our conversations with Chiefs officials, this much we know: Upper management, including team president Mark Donovan, understands the team’s powerful platform to bring about awareness of an issue facing the nation, and how fans’ actions might be considered offensive to Native American communities. In turn, the organization has tried to teach its loyal fan base the importance of celebrating but not mocking Native American history. We have to acknowledge that.
Which brings us back to the chop. The team and its fans must make it their mission to find an alternative game day tradition that celebrates a unique history and honors a special part of the team’s geographical culture.
The Chiefs are a No. 1 team and should act like it in all aspects of the game.