Respect Diversity + Inclusion

As Kansas City Chiefs prepare for Super Bowl, their name stirs up new controversy

a chiefs fan with a painted face and feathered headdress

Story at a glance

  • The Kansas City Chiefs are playing in the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 for the first time in 50 years.
  • Chiefs fans are known for costumes, chants and gestures offensive to Native Americans that will now be on a national stage.
  • The team says they are seeking to celebrate Native cultures, but critics say the actions of their fans dishonor Native Americans.

A lot has changed since the Kansas City Chiefs last played in the Super Bowl 50 years ago, but one thing hasn’t — their name. 

When the Chiefs played in Super Bowl IV in 1970, they played for the American Football League, before it merged with the NFL and became the American Football Conference. Their mascot was a Pinto horse named Warpaint ridden by a man in a feathered headdress, before it became K.C. Wolf in 1989. 

But while the Chiefs have listened to Native American groups about the appropriation of the war drum, “war chants” and the “tomahawk chop” have continued and the team has not banned Native American costumes from the stadium. 

During the AFC championship on Jan. 19, Chiefs fans were pictured with red face paint, imitation head dresses and costumes. 

“The most common explanation for this overt racism is that ‘we are honoring Native Americans.’ Honoring? One does not honor another race of people by insulting and demeaning them,” wrote Tim Giago, a Native American journalist, in a column

In fact the man who the team was named after, former Kansas-city mayor Harold Roe Bartle, was not Native American, according to Vincent Schilling of Indian Country Today. Bartle, who is credited with bringing the team to Kansas City, went by “Chief” as the founder of the Mic-O-Say honor society for the Boy Scouts of America. So in a name-the-team contest, Chiefs was chosen as the winning name. 

“I don’t ever talk bad about the athleticism of the athletes or people who are working hard to become who they are, but it is what it is,” Schilling told Changing America. 

“I think of my grandmother, who was so afraid to be Mohawk, she never uttered a word in her language to me. Lest I also be stolen away to boarding school. I only ask for respect,” Schilling said in a following tweet. 

Schilling’s grandmother was one of tens of thousands of Native Americans taken away from their families and sent to boarding schools. The school told his great-grandmother that if she wanted her children back, she needed to get a job. When they still didn’t release her children, Schilling said she rescued them in the middle of the night.  

“If someone wants to come and tell me that covering themselves in fake Native American regalia is in any way equivalent to the honor my great grandmother showed, I call them to task,” he said. 

Another NFL team, the Washington Redskins, has also faced criticism for their name — which is listed in dictionaries as a racial slur —  and owner Daniel Snyder has said the team will never change the name. But the Chiefs have managed to avoid some of the scrutiny of professional sports teams with names offensive to Native Americans. 

“[Chiefs is] not a racial slur, but to me it’s not so much the names of the teams outside of the Washington team that are problematic, it is the behavior associated with anything to do with Native America or Native Americans,” Schilling said. 

As a Super Bowl team, however, the issue is coming to the national stage. The San Francisco 49ers name, which refers to the Gold Rush, is also problematic, said Schilling, a former 49ers fan himself. The indigenous population of California went from more than 200,000 before the gold rush to about 30,000. Some were killed directly by miners while others were killed by diseases introduced by immigrants to the area. Native people in California were even forced into servitude, although slavery was technically banned in the state. 

But when it comes to the symbolism, Schilling points to Chiefs fans as most problematic. 

“If the 49ers win, you’re probably going to see a photo of a few of the players holding up a trophy, but if the Chiefs win I would be unsurprised to see some guy in a headdress painted from head to toe,” he said. 

In a statement to the Washington Post, the Chiefs emphasized the work they’ve done in recent years to reach out to the Native American community. 

“All along, our goal has been to use our platform to create an awareness and understanding of Native cultures, as well as celebrate the rich traditions of multiple tribes with a historic connection to our region,” read the statement reported by the Washington Post. “We continue to celebrate American Indian Heritage Month at Arrowhead Stadium each November, and through that, have continued to educate our fans and build additional relationships in the Native community. While we are pleased with the collaboration and the work that has been done over the past six years, we know the importance of continued dialogue on these topics.”

But some say dialogue isn’t enough. 

“For real change and real values to be initiated would be for the NFL to step up and say we are not going to tolerate this. Where is this championship behavior?” Schilling asked.