Interview: Stereotyping Native Americans in Sports is Wrong

The Super Bowl is an American spectacle, tradition, and holiday morphed into one extravaganza. This year’s gridiron battle will feature the San Francisco 49ers versus what is fast becoming “America’s team,” the Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City is appearing in its fourth Super Bowl in the past five seasons, and because one of its star players, tight end Travis Kelce, is dating Taylor Swift, all eyes in the sports universe are fixed upon the “Chiefs.”

Not In Our Honor, a Native American advocacy organization, is demanding more focus on Kansas City’s professional football team for an entirely different reason—its racist and vulgar appropriation of Native American ritual and symbol.

Founded in 2005, Not in Our Honor is dedicated to eradicating the hateful cartoon of Indigenous names, mascots, and chants in professional and collegiate sports.

I recently spoke with founder Rhonda LeValdo (Acoma Pueblo) about her organization’s protest against the Kansas City Chiefs, Indigenous history, and why they are hoping Taylor Swift will “say something” to aid their campaign.

Q: Why is the Kansas City Chiefs’ name objectionable? Why are you protesting it?

Rhonda LeValdo: We’ve been doing this since 2005, and there have been groups protesting it long before us. It wasn’t until I moved to Kansas City to go to school that I learned how much the fandom affects Native people in this area. We don’t just have to deal with it at the game. We go to the grocery store, and [the game] is playing over the loudspeaker. Even when we go to a baseball game or concert, people randomly do the chop. Even at grade school basketball games, people will do the chop at Native children to distract them. So, we’re looking at the name and the cultural appropriation—such as banging the drum, wearing warpaint, and wearing headdresses—and challenging the organization and NFL to live up to what they were saying. They said they would get rid of cultural appropriation, and they haven’t.

Q: How do you respond when some people say that the Chiefs are “celebrating Native culture”?

LeValdo: Well, a “chief” is not a title. It was a person who took on the burden of his people. If someone was hurt, or a family needed help, the “chief” would help them. Kansas City uses it as a title, and they are, in no way, helping their people out. The area where the stadium is located is very run-down. If they were really using that name in the way it is meant, they would be taking care of the people. They are not. The fact that people think that what goes on at the football game is Native representation is ridiculous. Native representation would be honoring our treaties. One of the treaties promises to have the Cherokee Nation have a delegate in Congress. They have that person ready to go, but they haven’t done it. If you want to see Native representation, honor our treaties.

The fact that people think that what goes on at the football game is Native representation is ridiculous. Native representation would be honoring our treaties.

Q: Does the fact that some people say it is representation, and genuinely believe it, reflect the failures of our educational system, and broader culture, to truly educate about Native American history and culture?

LeValdo: Definitely. Growing up in grade school and high school, we were a very small percentage of the history books, and it wasn’t even my history. It wasn’t even the history of the tribes where I went to school. This is part of the stereotype of our people. They are looking at one image, one persona. It is not representative of the [more than] 500 tribes that are out here. We speak different languages. We have different ceremonies.

If we look into the history of Native people in this country, we were completely assimilated. We weren’t even allowed to be Native American. We weren’t allowed to have our religions, our dances, our languages, our clothes. Our kids were stolen from us, and impacted by that historical trauma. We weren’t allowed to be Native American. So why is it OK for these fans at a football game to act like they are Native American, wearing headdresses and doing the chop? It doesn’t make sense.

Q: You’ve mentioned the chop. Why is that such an insult?

LeValdo: It’s a stereotype that is shown all over the world. That’s the worst part. The Super Bowl will be seen all over the world, and it will make it look like we are fine with this. The chop on national television manipulates viewers into thinking that we buy into this, and we don’t. Overwhelmingly, Native Americans would like this to stop.

Q: How do you feel when you turn on a football game, and you see that the NFL has painted the slogan, “End Racism” across the endzones and brandished it onto helmets?

LeValdo: It’s hypocritical. The NFL is tone deaf. They say that they are trying to raise awareness about systemic racism, and yet they are insulting one of the most marginalized [groups of] people in this country.

Q: You’ve called on Taylor Swift, because she is famously dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, to condemn the chop. Why was it important to make that appeal to her, and how do you feel about her silence as she’s touted as a liberal hero?

LeValdo: We know that she has supported LGBTQ+ rights, and we felt we could reach out to her to influence her fans to say something. She must know the chop is wrong, because she never does it. So, I wonder if she has had a conversation with her boyfriend and his family about how disgusting it is. I wish she would say something. It would help.

Q: Why is Kansas City so stubborn? Other teams in the NFL and MLB have changed their Native-themed names, and many colleges have changed their names and mascots. Why is there so much resistance in Kansas City?

LeValdo: Well, the team is owned by a family, namely Clark Hunt. So, they have a different structure. They bought into Harold Roe Bartle’s vision. He was the person who brought the team to Kansas City. He started a Boy Scout group called the “Tribe of Mic-o-Say.” Clark Hunt and his son are [figuratively] part of the Tribe of Mic-o-Say. So, they’ve bought into the fake Native American imagery. They think it is part of them.

Q: Have you been pleased that there has been some progress over the past five to ten years? The Washington Redskins changed their name, as did the Cleveland Indians in baseball, and many colleges.

LeValdo: Yes, it’s been nice to see movement, but at the same time, the doubling down in Kansas City is gross and disappointing. One of the good things happening is that on February 6, a movie, Imagining the Indian, started streaming online. People should watch that movie, because it will help them understand the historical reasons why we are against these names of appropriation. It is an excellent documentary that gives background information on why it is wrong to have Native mascots and appropriation in sports.

If people believe these inaccuracies perpetuated by what the Chiefs are doing, we are never going to have any movement forward.

Q: Speaking of history, doesn’t the historical record of slaughter and persecution of Indigenous people in the United States make these sports names and mascots the insult after injury?

LeValdo: Absolutely. That’s why people need to look at how the stereotyping is historically inaccurate. They also need to look at the psychological effects on Native children. People will often say, “Why not work on missing and murdered Indigenous women or food sovereignty?” All of it is related, because of these stereotypes, they are all related to how Native people are seen, and how people deal with us. So, if they believe these inaccuracies perpetuated by what the Chiefs are doing, we are never going to have any movement forward.

The largest number of missing and murdered people [per capita] in North America are Indigenous. They go missing, and no one tries to find them. One of those girls was Lakota Renville. In 2005, when we first started Not in Our Honor, she went missing. She was found rolled up in a carpet just a few miles away from the stadium. To this day, her murderer has not been found. Why? Why is it taking so long? And we get attacked. We have to make sure that we are being safe, because if we don’t, the people who threaten us are actually going to try something. But we’re still out here standing, trying to educate people, and raise awareness.

Q: What do you have planned for the Super Bowl?

LeValdo: We have boots-on-the-ground support in Las Vegas. We will have a press conference on Saturday night, and then we will have a protest outside the stadium.