Understanding Native American perspective about potential KC Chiefs name change

Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, an expert on the impact of Native American mascots, answers common fan questions and concerns about the need for a Kansas City Chiefs name change.

This is my 569th column that I have written for Arrowhead Addict about the Kansas City Chiefs and it is definitely the piece I have wrestled with writing the most. When news broke about the Washington franchise finally changing their name after years of outcry, specifically from Native American groups, many have speculated that the Chiefs might be one of the next teams to face pressure to do the same thing. I wanted to write about the topic, but I really didn’t know how to approach it.

If I’m being honest, I had never given any real thought to a need for a new team name. The term Chief isn’t derogatory like Washington’s former name and their insignia isn’t a racist image like the now retired “Chief Wahoo” of Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians. So why would it ever need to change? I’m certainly not someone that’s quick to jump on the “cancel culture” bandwagon just because it’s trendy.

Here’s the problem, I often complain that one of the biggest problems with our society these days is that nobody listens to each other. Social media has made everyone really good at stating their beliefs and criticizing the beliefs of others, but there is a severe shortage of people who are willing to really listen to and think about views different than their own.

I think a lot of you reading this are probably a lot like me. I’ve been a die-hard fan of this team for so long that they have become part of my identity. If I’m asked to tell people about myself I usually mention four things: my faith, my family, my job as a public school music teacher, and the fact that I am a HUGE Kansas City Chiefs fan. It might sound stupid to some people, but I am emotionally attached to this team.

Naturally, I don’t “want” their name to change. I have more hats, shirts, hoodies, and memorabilia with that name on it than I can count. I don’t like the idea of having to get used to a new name. Therefore, if I’m attached to the name and don’t personally find the term “Chief” offensive, end of story, right?

The problem is that if I’m being honest, I don’t know anything about the Native American experience in this country. My understanding of the history of indigenous persons in this country comes from the movie Dances With Wolves and some of the Spanish Bit Saga novels by Don Coldsmith that I read in middle school. I don’t even know how historically accurate those things are, but even if they are, they still didn’t teach me anything about what things are like for Native Americans now. Given my complete ignorance about what things are like for Native people in this country, the least I can do is listen to their perspective on my favorite team’s name before declaring one way or another on whether it is acceptable to use as a team name or not.

I originally set out just to read up on the viewpoints of those who are opposed to using any Native names as mascots. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I really wanted to do was to come as close to having a dialogue as you can in this format. I may not have known the Native viewpoint, but I’m certainly familiar with what most K.C. fans think on the subject, so I came up with a list of common justifications/questions that I’ve seen over and over from fans whenever this topic comes up. Then I set out to find an expert that could address them.

That’s where Dr. Stephanie Fryberg comes in. Dr. Fryberg is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of the Tulalip Tribes. She has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has been inducted into Stanford’s Multicultural Hall of Fame (her alma mater), and is a co-author of the 2008 study on “The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots” (which was done well before terms like “woke” and “cancel culture” became trendy). Her expertise and insights are often quoted whenever this discussion is had.

In other words, you won’t find much more of an expert on this topic. Despite the past week being incredibly busy for her with all the breaking news around the Washington team name, Dr. Fryberg was nice enough to take some time to answer my list of questions based on the doubts and justifications that most K.C. fans have when the topic of a name change comes up.

Regardless to what your opinions on a Chiefs name change are coming into this, I hope you will at least take the time to listen to what she has to say in order to gain a better understanding of how many Native Americans feel about this issue.

The most common defense of the Chiefs name is that it isn’t a racial slur like the name of the Washington team. Since Chiefs are respected leaders in Native American culture, why isn’t it a sign of respect that a team would want to be named after them and why is that offensive to some?

Dr. Fryberg: The problem with the Washington team was not limited to the fact that it was a slur. The problem is about the use of Native mascots more generally. Using Chiefs as a mascot opens the door to demeaning and mocking Native peoples.

First, it gives license to fans to play Indian—to put on redface, wear chief headdresses, and imitate Native songs and dances. Then, by putting these mascots in the sporting domain, the other team wants to derogate or demean the Chief. There have been university and high school examples of schools creating banners such as “Welcome to the trail of tears”—as though reference to the genocide of Native peoples would make for a clever analogy to how they were planning to beat the team. Such behavior is really made possible by holding onto these mascots.

In addition, it is really important to draw a clear line between intent and impact. While the Chiefs may claim they intend to honor Native Peoples, the science does not support this assertion. The science clearly demonstrates that there are no benefits for Natives being used as mascots. Using natives as mascots is related to lower self-esteem, less achievement-related aspirations, greater anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. None of these things are what you would associate with something done in the name of honoring a group.

In the past, the team has worked with groups like the American Indian Center of the Great Plains, have participated in Native American Heritage Month, and have had representatives of the local Native community come in and bless the drum used in pregame ceremonies. Is there any research on what percentage of Native Americans find these names/traditions offensive and should that percentage be important when it comes to these discussions?

Dr. Fryberg: Overall, the research findings show that Native People who are highly identified with being Native are most offended by these mascots. Sixty-seven percent of Native People who are highly engaged with their culture report being offended by being used as Native mascots, and 57% whose identity is very important to their sense of well-being, what is called “identity centrality,” are offended.

Based on the scientific literature linking identification with discrimination, this finding isn’t surprising. The people most identified with their group are the ones more likely to experience discrimination and prejudice based on that identity and are more likely to notice and call out instances of bias. If you think about the use of mascots through the lens of perceptions of prejudice and bias, then the finding is clear and built on decades of research.

We also collected data on specific acts, such as non-Natives wearing chief headdresses and doing the tomahawk chop, and about three-fourths of Natives are offended by those behaviors.

Many fans like to point out that the team was actually named for former Kansas City mayor Harold Roe Bartle who helped bring the team to Kansas City. Bartle’s nickname was Chief after having spent time with the Arapaho people. He then brought some of their traditions to a branch of the Boy Scouts he founded called the Mic-O-Say. Does that origin of their team name have any effect on your view of the name and it’s continued use?

Dr. Fryberg: No, this origin doesn’t affect the issue at hand. The data is about how fans use these mascots. Chiefs fans still wear headdresses, paint their faces red, and imitate Native songs and dances, etc. Moreover, the Boy Scouts are some of the worst offenders in terms of appropriating Native cultures and playing Indian. Again, this brings us back to issues of intent versus impact. The historical intent does not align with how fans are using the mascot today.

Two of the things that you mentioned that are problematic for the Chiefs are the “Tomahawk Chop” and fans dressing up in Native American costumes at games. If the Chiefs were to eliminate those two specific things and continued to work with and communicate with local Native groups do you believe most Native Americans would be open to them continuing to use the name Chiefs?

Dr. Fryberg: First, you don’t have to have a Native mascot in order to engage with local Native communities.

Moreover, if this is really about honoring Native people, the Chiefs organization is light years away from where they need to be if they want to honor Native people. To shine light on and bring honor to Native people requires a complete reframing of the national conversation. America must own its history with Native People; honor our treaties and the sovereignty held by tribal nations; and America must open its collective eyes to the experiences, hardships, and successes of contemporary Native Peoples. When all you want is the romantic story, designed to make mainstream Americans feel good, you are not honoring us.

I really appreciate you taking time to answer these questions. If there are any fans that would like to learn more about Native peoples, are there any resources or groups you would recommend?

Dr. Fryberg: There are websites where people can learn more about Native mascots and about bias and discrimination that Native people experience. They can start by looking at Illuminative’s website.

I really want to thank Dr. Fyrberg again for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions and hopefully give Chiefs fans a better understanding of the Native viewpoint. This isn’t an easy topic. If you are a big enough fan of this team to be reading this piece, you’re probably as emotionally attached to the name Chiefs as I am. While it’s easy for us to wave this discussion off as just “PC cancel culture” or to just say “Chiefs isn’t an offensive term” and forget about it, this issue isn’t going away.

A large percentage of the Native community doesn’t support Native mascots. Period. It isn’t a fad for them, and they’ve been fighting this fight for decades. At some point, the organization is going to have to address this one way or the other, and it would be nice if they didn’t wait until corporate sponsors forced their hand like they did in Washington. It certainly wouldn’t hurt for the team to sit down and have theses conversations with people like Dr. Fryberg face to face.

I know many of you may not want a Chiefs name change, but this discussion is less about what we “want” and what is the right thing to do. If nothing else, I hope Dr. Fryberg’s answers to many of our questions has given you some new insight to think about when trying to answer that question. Thanks for reading.

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