Why The Chiefs’ Name Is Not Like The Redskins


Last week, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office revoked the trademark for a number of brands associated with the name “Washington Redskins” currently held by the Washington NFL franchise.

I went to college in Washington, DC and so their team is basically my #2 team and I have continued to follow them since moving on from the area. Still, I think the ruling was fair and long overdue, but it raises questions about the fate of other sports team names alluding to Native Americans. Could the Chiefs face similar action?

I doubt it, but I think it is nonetheless a good idea to talk a bit about this touchy issue, not just as fans, but as Americans.

But first off, let’s look at the ruling itself. You can read the whole 99-page decision if you have a boring weekend ahead of you, but Vanity Fair

Dec 8, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder on the field before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

summarized it pretty well. The basic point is that the government does not provide trademark protection for names or logos that “disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute.”

The team argued that the name “Redskin,” while it may refer to Native Americans in a disparaging way, it has a different meaning as a name for a football team.

"The trade board refuted the Redskins’ separate-meaning claim by pointing out the team’s helmets are decorated with the image of a generic Native American. The decision also cites some horribly kitschy photos of feather-headdress-wearing members of the Redskins marching band and the old Redskinettes cheerleaders."

Furthermore, they ruled that:

"the Redskins name is indeed derogatory they cited: (a) the fact that in virtually all English-language dictionaries the word is labeled “often offensive,” “often disparaging,” “contemptuous,” or, at the very least, “not the preferred term” (thank you, O.E.D.); (b) the fact that the term has virtually disappeared from newspapers and other media outside references to football; and (c) the fact that prominent Native American organizations and a sizeable proportion of individual Native Americans find the term offensive."

So where does this leave the Chiefs? Well, the government’s reasoning for revoking the trademark for “Redskins” doesn’t really seem to apply to here.

First, this is because the word “chief,” short for “chieftain,” is not specific to Native Americans but is a generic term for a leader.

Dictionary.com defines it as:

"chief  [cheef]  noun1. the head or leader of an organized body of people; the person highest in authority: the chief of police.2. the head or ruler of a tribe or clan: an Indian chief.3. ( initial capital letter ) U.S. Army. a title of some advisers to the Chief of Staff, who do not, in mostinstances, command the troop units of their arms or services: Chief of Engineers; Chief Signal Officer.4. Informal. boss or leader: We’ll have to talk to the chief about this.5.Heraldry.a. the upper area of an escutcheon.b. an ordinary occupying this area."

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The second definition there is potentially problematic. Given the rest of the Chiefs’ imagery and the logo of a stone arrowhead, it is pretty clear that the name is referencing Native Americans. However, the word “chief” is not used exclusively to describe leaders in Native American tribal societies, but even European ones like Arminius back in the day. Nonetheless, the name is not in and of itself derogatory or disparaging.

So, I don’t think there’s much of a legal case for forcing it to change.

But should it change?

I’m sure some activists would also say that any attempt by the majority ethnicity to use logos and imagery of minorities — in this case Native Americans — as fierce warriors is contributing to the stereotype that they are savage and hostile. I can certainly see that argument, but I can’t say I know what it is like to be on the other side of it.

For the record, I am of mixed Irish, German, Scottish and Cherokee heritage. But, I also recognize that I was raised essentially in the standardized White American Midwestern culture, not as a member of any of those specific communities.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been following the Scottish independence referendum with interest — mostly as a journalist, but also because I recognize some of my ancestors came from there. But, I don’t think my bloodline gives me any credibility in the matter. In the same way, I don’t think it’s special that I hit the pub like everyone else on St. Paddy’s and Oktoberfest. The closest I’ve been to a reservation was playing some Topeka High football games at the stadium of Haskell Indian Nations University.

By the way, Haskell’s sports teams are called the “Fighting Indians,” and their logo is a chief wearing a headdress.

So, for me the question is: Is there any way for a mainstream team followed by the majority culture to celebrate a type of minority figure or hero without being mocking, stereotyping or worse? I’d like to think so.

But, some compromise may be necessary. In 1989, the Chiefs switched their mascot from a man wearing a feathered headdress to the KC Wolf. That’s a change I don’t think anyone can be too upset with. But the arrowhead? The tomahawk chop?

I think there is plenty of middle ground here and while I personally don’t think the Kansas City Chiefs mock Native Americans any more than the Vikings or Spartans mock those with Scandinavian or Greek ancestry, I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel disparaged by the team or its logos.