PHOENIX (AP) — A coalition of Native American groups who have lobbied the Kansas City Chiefs to abandon their mascot, logo and the fan-driven “tomahawk chop” said Thursday the team’s return to the Super Bowl has emboldened them more than ever.
“People are trying to be really positive about Kansas City and what it does and how like ‘Yes, sports binds us all together,’ ” Rhonda LeValdo, founder of the Kansas City-based Indigenous activist group Not In Our Honor, said at a news conference. “It’s not bringing our people into this celebration together. Really, it’s hurting us more because now it’s the bigger spotlight where you’re seeing this all over the world.”
LeValdo was part of a group that picketed outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, in 2021 when the Chiefs were vying for a second consecutive Super Bowl win. Now as the Chiefs return to the big game Sunday in Arizona, she along with other protesters from Kansas City and various Arizona tribes will be there again.
Arizona to Rally Against Native Mascots is leading a demonstration outside State Farm Stadium in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.
Fights against the appropriation of tribal cultures and images have been going on for decades — not just with the Chiefs but with multiple teams across different sports. Native Americans say using iconography and words with Native connotations demeans them and perpetuates racist stereotypes.
Supporters have felt more emboldened in the last few years. A lot of teams previously countered that the mascots were meant to show tribes respect. But the racial reckoning and protests of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd compelled some franchises to do soul-searching. The Cleveland Indians baseball team officially changed to the Guardians in November 2021. The team also axed Chief Wahoo, a logo which was a caricature of an Indian American.
It was a year ago this month that the Washington Football Team was anointed the Commanders. That move came after 18 months of pressure to drop the Redskins, which was seen as a racial slur.
Chiefs President Mark Donovan gave no indication that there was room for change. He told The Associated Press Thursday that he respects the right of those opposed to the mascot to demonstrate.
“We also respect that we need to continue to educate and raise awareness of the Native American culture and the things we do to celebrate, that we’ve done more over the last seven years — I think — than any other team to raise awareness and educate ourselves,” Donovan said.
The Chiefs have made efforts to address concerns about cultural insensitivities going back a decade but always stop short of altering their name or fan-favorite gestures and chants. In 2013, the team created the American Indian Community Working Group, which has Native Americans serving as advisors to the team on promoting area cultures and tribes.
“That’s been instrumental in providing us guidance. We’re not making proclamations and decisions,” Donovan said. “I’m going to them and saying, ‘What do you think about this? How does this make you feel?’ I’m really proud of the things we’ve done and the people we’ve worked with.”
This led to invitations for Cheyenne spiritual and ceremonial leaders to take part at some games. It wasn’t until 2020 — when the Washington team first decided to change its name — that the Chiefs issued a ban on fans donning tribal headdresses, war paint and clothing at Arrowhead Stadium.
They also changed the tomahawk “chop” with cheerleaders using a closed fist instead of an open palm. Native American organizations in Kansas City at the time called the changes “laughable.”
The franchise has also made a point to participate in American Indian Heritage Month, which is in November. Most recently, they posted a video with long snapper James Winchester, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and center Creed Humphrey, who is from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
This Super Bowl protest is happening in a state where a quarter of the land belongs to Native Americans. The NFL has been emphasizing its collaborations with Native and Indigenous people based in Arizona.
Lucinda Hinojos, who was born in Glendale and is of Apache and Yaqui descent, became the first Native and Chicana artist to partner with the NFL. Her painting is featured on all Super Bowl tickets and throughout the NFL Experience. Colin Denny, a University of Arizona researcher and a member of the Navajo Nation, has been chosen to perform “America the Beautiful” during the game’s pre-show. Denny, who is deaf, will utilize both American Sign Language and North American Indian Sign Language.
Anyone hoping these Native organizers will eventually give up these protests will be disappointed, LeValdo said.
“There are young people that come with us as well,” she said. “We’re looking forward to the next generation that’s going to carry that. There’s always going to be Native people who are against it. It’s not going to stop.”