Professor says Super Bowl will reignite conversation around 'controversial' Chiefs name

With the Kansas City Chiefs set to step onto one of the world's biggest sporting stages Sunday night, a professor expects all of the attention will help reignited conversation about the team's name and use of stereotypical Indigenous symbols.

Some fans wear feathered headdresses and take part in the 'tomahawk chop'

A Chiefs fan wearing a feathered headdress is seen outside Arrowhead Stadium before the NFL AFC Championship football game on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press)

With the Kansas City Chiefs set to step onto one of the world's biggest sporting stages Sunday night, a professor expects all of the attention will help kick off conversation about the team's "controversial" name and use of Indigenous symbols.

The team's helmets sport an arrowhead logo and its stadium shares the same name. It's also not uncommon for fans to daub on "warpaint" or don feathered headdresses before taking part in the "tomahawk chop" during home games.

"With the Chiefs in the Super Bowl today we're going to see more attention placed on them and we'll probably start to look at the NFL … and see some discourse coming out about what to do regarding the visuals and performances of the fans," said Jason Black, Fulbright Research Chair at Brock University's Centre for Canadian Studies.

For Black, the big game featuring the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers offers an opportunity to examine the practice of using Indigenous names, symbols and rituals in sports.

"These moments allow us to spotlight the coloniality of Indigenous names, images and rituals used as mascots and to reveal, in the midst of increased attention, the ways in which such logics of colonialism continue to do harm," he explained.

"We are starting to see some more protest and activism around it."

Arrowhead a 'sign of war'

Black coauthored a book titled Mascot Nation: The Controversy over Native American Representations in Sports that was published in 2018.

The professor is a football fan himself, and said he understands people form strong bonds teams and their logos. So much so that in many cases cheering for a particular franchise can become a family tradition or become part of someone's identity.

However, when Indigenous symbols or identities are involved in sports they're often watered down to "gross stereotypes of violence" such as the tomahawk chop chant or appropriated religious symbols such as headdresses or eagle feathers, said Black.

The team was officially christened the Chiefs in 1963, after moving from Dallas to Kansas City.

Its website states the name was partially chosen as a way to honour mayor Harold Roe Bartle, who helped make the relocation happen and was nicknamed "Chief."

Jason Black is a Fulbright Chair at Brock University’s Centre for Canadian Studies. (Brock University)

For the past six years the team has celebrated American Indian Heritage Month, along with representatives from different tribes and "in-game events dedicated to observing Native American culture and educating the fans in attendance."

But Indigenous symbols have been part of the team's tradition from the start and while the name might not be as overt as the Washington Redskins, Black says it can still cause harm.

Part of the research for Black's book included polling Chiefs fans to get their take on the team's use of Indigenous-related chants and logos.

Black says they found people weren't really disturbed by word "chiefs," but the use of the arrowhead as a "sign of war" and the tomahawk chop chant, as well as fans wearing headdresses or loincloths left some disturbed.

Stereotypes make reconciliation more difficult

He noted that while fans might not even realize what they're doing can hurt people there's also an inherent hypocrisy to it.

"Indigenous people, as they were colonized, put onto reservations, exterminated, those kinds of practices were banned, eagle feathers were banned, headdresses were banned," the professor said.

"And yet these are the things people bring to the stadium to practice their fandom."

A common criticism Black says he encounters when talking about teams and mascots is that there must be more important Indigenous issues to focus on, such as health, access to clean water or missing and murdered women.

The professor pointed out people are "sophisticated creatures" that can focus on multiple problems at the same time, adding something as simple as a mascot of team name can have wider implications.

"As people see [Indigenous] folks, in particular in stereotyped ways, the less likely they are to do things like reconcile," he explained. "They're less willing to understand Indigenous history or vote for a particular candidate who has Indigenous reform in mind."