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Vahe Gregorian

It’s time for the Chiefs to defuse the cultural offenses they enable and reflect

 

When Lamar Hunt and an entourage of his Dallas Texans staff and players arrived at Municipal Airport on April 15, 1963, to spark a ticket drive to assure their proposed move to Kansas City, the small group that greeted them included Shawnee Mission East students holding a banner that read, “Welcome Home, K.C. Somethings.”

The move became a reality weeks later, and so it was time for a more specific name. And for all the genius and vision that defined owner Hunt and coach Hank Stram, their first instinct was myopic.

“Lamar and Hank, they wanted to call it the Kansas City Texans,” longtime Chiefs executive Jack Steadman said in a 2013 interview, laughing and adding, “So finally I convinced Lamar that it wasn’t going to work, and we decided to have a naming contest.”

Thus emerged the “Rename the Dallas Texans Contest,” co-sponsored by The Star. It prompted 4,866 responses and 1,020 different nicknames from 21 states. “Mules” led the way with 272 votes, and “Royals” was second with 269 submissions.

There were 42 entries of “Chiefs,” including the Plymouth Valiant-winning draw of Everett L. Diemler, who perhaps benefited from some behind-the-scenes machinations.

With an internal memo on May 16, 1963, among numerous items provided for that 2013 story by Chiefs historian Bob Moore, Steadman solicited staff input on 10 ideas: Chiefs, Drovers, Mokans, Mules, Pioneers, Plainsmen, Royals, Stars, Stockers and Texans.

But one had the inside track.

“I told Lamar, ‘We’ve got to name this thing after Roe Bartle,’” said Steadman, noting the moniker of the Kansas City mayor who was instrumental in the team’s move north. “’We’ve got to name it ‘Chiefs.’”

Bartle’s nickname stemmed from his involvement with the Boy Scouts of America and founding of the Tribe of Mic-O-Say, a story in itself but nonetheless part of what led to a fundamental issue that was more accepted in that bygone era.

(Perhaps that was particularly more acceptable when it came to a franchise that paradoxically otherwise stood against racial injustice by accelerating the integration of pro football.)

Soon after the name became official on May 26, 1963, the Chiefs went all-in with imagery and branding appropriated from Native Americans. That included an early logo caricaturing a Native American, depicted bare-chested in a headdress and clad in a loin cloth (with KC on it) while raising a tomahawk with his right hand and carrying a football under his left arm.

And that cultural co-opting and mockery of indigenous people upon whom genocide was practiced, in a country that embedded the notion of “merciless Indian Savages” in its Declaration of Independence, persists in various forms painful to many Native Americans.

Time for self-reflection

Problematic as the Chiefs name itself might be and obviously inflammatory as associated iconography and behaviors from the tomahawk chop to cartoonish dress-ups long have been, they’ve also been buffered by the presence in the NFL of the Washington team that embraces an ethnic slur that longstanding Star policy precludes us from directly citing.

But with Washington apparently seriously contemplating a name change under financial pressure from sponsors amid the reckoning for racial justice these last few months, the context of being known as the Chiefs may soon change if they stand as the only NFL team to enable such contempt in the name of entertainment and tradition.

So the crux of the challenge for the franchise (and the community) going forward will be to honestly assess to what degree the name is inherently divisive and, accordingly, if it feasibly can be uncoupled from the behavior it evokes.

(As I considered even that question anew, it struck me that I found myself thinking, “Can the Chiefs still get away with the name?” Which seems like a conversation point in itself.)

Some will consider the very idea of contemplating what’s right here, how to reconcile all this in a respectful way, as a capitulation to so-called “cancel culture.”

But if the last few months of impassioned, sprawling activism in the wake of the gratuitous killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer have taught us anything, it’s a time to open our hearts and minds.

It’s a time to consider our own blind spots … and who the truly aggrieved might be in any given scenario.

It’s a time to ask ourselves why we might be so entrenched into positions that we wouldn’t necessarily take if we were starting from scratch ... and how this will appear beyond our bubble in the long arc of history.

Most of all, it’s a time to listen. To really listen.

For the Chiefs, who have taken some-but-not-enough respectful measures along the way and are believed to be reviewing related matters now, and for all of us.

Can’t be a pariah

Bob Prue, an associate professor of social work at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of Indians and a Veteran of the United States Army who serves on the board of the Kansas City Indian Center.

A long conversation the other day started with a question about his feelings about the team name versus the imagery that comes with it.

“It’s less about the name,” he said, than images from Arrowhead to the chop to the headdresses and the name of Warpaint, the horse visible on the field and around the stadium.

“They’ve really encouraged this singular view of American Indians as nothing but the ‘merciless Indian Savage’ of the Declaration of Independence,” he said, noting the negative stereotypes that perpetuate in majority cultures and the self-esteem issues it creates for Native children who see that nonsense normalized.

As to those who say these are ways of honoring Native Americans?

“I would usually say how is that honor received by the people you’re trying to honor?” said Prue, who said the Chiefs have declined to meet with his group in recent years. “I don’t mean you go trot out this one Indian that will say it’s OK. No, you ask the community.

“And if you get a significant, large number of people who are offended by what you’re doing, how can it be that you’re honoring them if what you’re doing is offensive to them?”

While he appreciates the difference between malicious and misguided behavior, he laughed and added, “I didn’t intend to run into the back of your car, but you know what, I screwed your car up. Maybe I should pay more attention to what I’m doing. …

“It’s how it lands.”

If you really want to honor American Indians, he added, there’s plenty to be done in terms of repatriation of land to perhaps removing the downtown KC statue of Andrew Jackson, or renaming Jackson County since “it’s basically named after … a criminal” responsible for the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and other atrocities.

As centuries pass, this all still connects in a very tangible way in the sense of what Prue calls “the sanitizing of American history.” He grew up hearing from his father about Native society before “these savage, cruel people came.”

Then he went to school and was confused to hear how “these savage, cruel people” supposedly were his own.

So the question cuts deeper than many thinking simply about making a mascot of the heritage might even suppose. It’s about what Prue called a mind-game … only he didn’t say game.

The country, he said, has “either taken whatever they’ve had, used whatever resources they’ve had and then you make up this mythology about it: ‘This was God’s will that this was your land,’ or that there was an empty land, or that we willingly gave all this up. Or even words (such as), ‘We gave you these reservations to live on.’”

That history of being “systematically disappeared out of American consciousness” makes it particularly galling to be further marginalized as mascots, which Prue said implies they are “the property of somebody.”

A good first step

Prue believes there’s a possibility of important change ahead. The financial force behind the potential change in Washington is a reminder that the color green tends to be an incentive for all.

In Kansas City, substantially changing the Chiefs’ branding, including the stadium name, would be a great first step, he said. More boldly, changing the name altogether would make sense, he said -- and there are plenty of available names that have nothing to do with demeaning human beings.

Or, he added, what about such hybrid possibilities as a change of emphasis? The Fire Chiefs, for instance, could memorialize firefighters (including the six who died in the 1988 explosion) and enable the Chiefs to keep the same colors and be “win-win for everybody.”

While he hopes the Chiefs are having substantial conversations about all of this right now, he wonders what impact the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority might be able to have as owner of the stadium if the Chiefs won’t make changes. Not to mention the potential sway of sponsors and other businesses if necessary.

“You’re going to have to get local big businesses to say, ‘This is not OK. We don’t want Kansas City to be the big pariah of the racial justice movement at this moment,’” he said. “There’s a wonderful opportunity for Kansas City to do something here.”

‘Disrespectful and racist’

Rhonda LeValdo, an Acoma Pueblo woman, teaches media communications at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. She wrote a guest commentary for The Star in January bearing the headline: “Problem with ‘Arrowhead Chop’ isn’t political correctness. It’s about human dignity.

“Too many people don’t care about Native Americans unless they can use our likeness for their companies, cars, or costumes. Many people don’t see the Native headdress unless they are at KC or Washington football games, Halloween parties, or music festivals,” she wrote then, later adding, “Using our cultural ways to ‘pump up’ your team is disrespectful and racist.”

When we spoke Thursday, she noted her frustration over not feeling able to enjoy the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run as she did the Royals’ back-to-back World Series appearances. She feels disgust every time she sees the chop … and it was everywhere around that time.

“Sports to me is supposed to be a unifying thing for all of us. We can all be on that bandwagon, cheering for the same team (despite) having totally different backgrounds,” she said. “I would have loved to be on that (Super Bowl) bandwagon. But I (couldn’t), because to me it’s just so disrespectful.”

While she appreciates some of the efforts the Chiefs have made, she and others have for years implored the Chiefs to ask their fans to stop dressing up and chopping and otherwise appropriating Native ways.

But they’ve gotten nowhere significant.

So while she sees the potential for useful progress if the Chiefs condemn or otherwise work to stop such actions, she adds that barring a name change, “You’re going to always have the same person who just doesn’t care and keeps doing it.”

And so she advocates a new name, particularly one pointed out to her that could “right all the wrongs.”

Call them the Kansas City Monarchs, she said, an homage to the fabled Negro Leagues team in the city where the enterprise was born 100 years ago.

Honor by listening

None of this is going to be solved adequately immediately. And the Chiefs have come a long way since that first icon and through other unwise moments along the way — including an ill-considered “Tribe” poster in 1991.

But perhaps there is an applicable lesson to be taken from one matter in particular.

In 1992, they briefly yielded on the chop under pressure from Native American groups. But after deciding they would no longer promote it, the Chiefs reversed their decision because of a deluge of letters and calls from fans saying they wanted it back.

Part of a full-page ad in The Star back then read, “Truth be told, no one meant any disrespect when doing the chop. And, if no offense is intended, why then must offense be taken?”

Because, as Prue put it, it’s how it lands.

And what you might be able to get away with is a lot different than trying to do right.

And because a better way to really honor Native Americans is by truly listening to them. It’s time for the hard conversations to start in earnest.

“That’s probably the most hurtful thing,” LeValdo said. “That people don’t want to pay attention to what we have to say.”

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