Fans of the Kansas City Chiefs call it the “arrowhead chop” but Indigenous people are calling it cultural appropriation and they’re angry that’ll be on television for hundreds of millions to see.
The chop is a hand gesture fans do to celebrate their team that mimics the swinging of a tomahawk. It’s accompanied by a native-style chant that goes along with a drumbeat while a horse named Warpaint runs up and down the sidelines.
“It’s these sort of things that makes it so racist,” says Ian Campeau who has lobbied sports teams to change their names. “It’s commodifying Indigenous people. It’s taking our culture and it’s literally making fun of it. They’re taking our stuff and having fun with it, they’re taking our culture and making fun of it. That’s why it’s so bad.
“People understand what it means to make fun of somebody, and how that’s wrong, but they don’t seem to get it when it comes to Indigenous people and taking our sacred objects and sacred things and literally making fun of it.”
The Chiefs will play the San Francisco 49ers for the National Football League (NFL) top prize but some say they won’t be tuning in.
Mohawk journalist Vincent Schilling has posted videos on subjects like the harms of cultural appropriation and in a series of recent tweets.
Schilling has renamed the Superbowl to the #AppropriationBowl.
“What do I as a Native man do? I ask that we spread awareness,” Schilling asked in the tweet. “If you support the @chiefs I support your right to do so. But I ask that you not argue at me to change my position. Or tell me I should not be offended.
“No doubt people will tell me to ‘Get Over It’ or ‘Move On’ but it isn’t just about the team name. It is the sweeping approval from the @NFL to allow headdresses, face paint, Tomahawk Chops and more at games.”
Schilling goes on to point out the Kansas City Chiefs aren’t honoring Indigenous people.
The name Chiefs was chosen to honor a non-Indigenous man, Harold Roe Bartle, a former mayor of Kansas City who was nicknamed Chief.
As a former Sports Editor, and as a Native American journalist, I have a few things to say about this #AppropriationBowl.
— Vincent Schilling (@VinceSchilling) January 20, 2020
Campeau takes it a step further and says not only are they not honoring Indigenous people but they’re making fun of sacred objects and Indigenous culture.
“They just don’t get it. They don’t understand the harm they’re doing,” he said.
In 2013, Campeau campaigned to have an Ottawa minor football team named after the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change its name.
It was a bitter campaign and the hashtag #Changethename was born.
Campeau offered to help raise money for the team to offset the costs of the name change.
The team is now called the Eagles. Ownership never did contact Campeau to take him up on his offer.
“They don’t understand how much it hurts us to see people use our iconography like this,” Campeau said of the Kansas City Chiefs. “If you know the story of the drum and how it came to us you wouldn’t treat it like that.”
(‘Nobody seems to say anything or do anything as long as they are making money,’ says Ian Campeau)
Like Campeau, Rhonda LeValdo also takes particular issue with the use of a sacred item like the drum and called it disrespectful.
LeValdo is a member of the Acoma Pueblo Tribe and a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University near Kansas City, Missouri, home of the Chiefs.
She has protested against the Chiefs use of Indigenous items.
LeValdo says Indigenous people in Kansas City are faced with the racist images and “the chop” every day.
She said she was told by the Chiefs that there is a policy against people wearing headdresses to the games and the team has asked broadcasters not to film fans wearing them.
LeValdo said she still sees it.
She said it’s time for the Chiefs to change their attitude and suggests they take the Golden State Warriors as an example.
“There’s no Native American images or anything bad at (Golden State) games reflective of Native American culture. That’s the way to go,” LeValdo said.
The Golden State Warriors logo evolved over time.
The team was born in Philadelphia in 1947.
It’s logo? An image of a barefoot American Indian dribbling a basketball.
In 1970, all references to American Indians ended.
This isn’t the first sports team to draw attention to itself because of racist names or cultural appropriation.
There’s the Atlanta Braves with the “tomahawk chop.” According to 2019 media reports the team said it stopped selling the foam tomahawk and “reduced” the number of times music is played in the stadium that goes along with the action.
You can still buy a foam tomahawk on the team’s website.
And there’s the Cleveland Indians (teams and fans call themselves “the Tribe”) that not only uses the word Indians, but used to have a shoulder logo with a ridiculous caricature called Chief Wahoo.
As of 2018, Chief Wahoo no longer exists on the team’s website except in the shop section where you can still buy a team jersey with that logo.
But perhaps none is more famous than the Washington Redskins.
The team has been battling forces trying to change its name for decades.
It has even gone to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend it.
Owner Daniel Snyder has told USA Today in 2013 that his team’s name is here to stay.
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. Never,” he said.
Hockey isn’t immune
Canada’s sport isn’t immune to questions of appropriation and questionable team names.
Since the 1960s, different groups have been trying to get the Chicago Blackhawks to change its name.
There’s also an issue of how people come to support the team.
Like the Kansas City Chiefs, some fans were headdress to show their support.
At a recent game between Chicago and the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa, two fans were called out for their headdress.
A friend went to an Ottawa @Senators game last night and saw these #ignorant people who refused to remove "their" headdresses. I am shocked they were allowed to bring them into the @CdnTireCtr. The #Senators are an organization who claim to support #reconciliation @APTNNews pic.twitter.com/LKclcT2WYl
— Christina Marie (@xtina_marie04) January 15, 2020
APTN contacted the Ottawa Senators, that started holding Indigenous cultural celebration day in the 2018-2019 season, to ask whether it had a policy on people wearing headdress or other culturally appropriated dress. APTN didn’t hear back at the time of this posting.
In 2015, the Winnipeg Jets banned fans from wearing headdress to games.
Campeau said people need to educate themselves on the history of the sports teams that use Indigenous logos and names because they are not honoring Indigenous people.
He says sports teams are making a lot of money using these names and images and one way people can fight it is to stop financially supporting those teams.
“When you dress up as any other culture it’s seen as exploitive and cultural appropriation. But nobody seems to say anything or do anything as long as they are making money on their end,” Campeau said.
“Maybe that’s the way out, is to disrupt that money.”
(Signs outside a Kansas City game. Photo courtesy: Rhonda LeValdo)
It’s not like it can’t be done.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned the use of Indigenous mascots and names in 2005.
“It is vitally important that we maintain a balance between the interests of a particular Native American tribe and the NCAA’s responsibility to ensure an atmosphere of respect and sensitivity for all who attend and participate in our championships,” said former NCAA president Myles Brand in 2005. “We recognize that there are many points of view… we also know that some Native American groups support the use of mascots and imagery and some do not; that is why we will pay particular attention to special circumstances associated with each institution.”
At the time, 18 universities and colleges had names associated with either an American Tribe like the Florida Seminoles, or a generalized term including the name Indians.
The schools were allowed to appeal the ban but only if the school garnered approval from an associated Tribe.
Five teams, including the Seminoles, kept their names.
The Kansas City Chiefs have received numerous complaints by the local Indigenous community but still refuse to change their traditions.
APTN contacted the Kansas City Chiefs but the team declined to comment.
APTN also contacted the NFL for comment but didn’t receive a response.
The Chiefs has stated in other news stories that the chanting and arrowhead chop are a way for fans to come together and support the team.
The Superbowl kicks off at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami on Feb 2.