By Amy Tennery and James Oliphant
PHOENIX (Reuters) – Native American groups are expected to protest the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, calling for the AFC champions to drop their name and logo as they take on the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 57.
The Chiefs wear the arrowhead logo on their helmet and use a large drum to kick of their home games, as fans routinely engage in what’s known as the “tomahawk chop” chant, all of which critics say draw on offensive and racist stereotypes.
This is their third trip to the NFL title game in four years and Kansas City fans can be heard throughout Phoenix singing the “tomahawk chop” chant. It is a jarring contrast to the displays of Native American culture and pride that Super Bowl hosts have invited to participate in the days leading up to the game.
Dancers from Indigenous Enterprise performed at Monday’s Opening Night festivities, becoming the first Native Americans to perform at the annual media mega event.
In a strange juxtaposition, they took the stage minutes after Kansas City fans in attendance at the Footprint Center joined together in a loud rendition of their “tomahawk chop” chant.
“What the NFL is doing inside Phoenix, by bringing in indigenous dancers and artists, that’s celebrating the authentic, which is wonderful,” said Cher Thomas, an artist, community organizer and member of the Gila River Community. She will be among those outside the game on Sunday protesting.
“However, the NFL simultaneously condones Kansas City’s team and their names and monikers and their derogatory traditions.”
The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chiefs supporter Benny Blades, 55, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he admired the team for “sticking to their guns” as he stood in Scottsdale’s Old Town, where fans broke out into spontaneous “tomahawk” chants on streets lined with shops selling Native American arts and crafts.
“We can’t say anything now because you’re gonna offend one or two percent of the people in the United States,” he said.
Scottsdale is directly adjacent to the Salt River-Maricopa Indian Community of more than 7,000 residents, one of Arizona’s 22 federally recognized tribes.
At Sunday’s preshow, when singer Babyface performs “America the Beautiful,” Navajo Colin Denny will provide North American Indian Sign Language interpretation.
Chiefs fans are all but assured to perform the “tomahawk chop” cheer loudly in the minutes before kickoff, as they did prior to the game in their previous two Super Bowl appearances.
The Chiefs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ak-Chin Indian Community, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the Tohono O’odham Nation, who are partners with the Super Bowl host committee, did not respond to multiple interview requests. Another partner, Gila River Indian Community, did not make leadership available.
It is far from the first time the Chiefs name and traditions have come under fire.
In 2019 the Kansas City Star called for an end to the chanting and chopping hand gestures.
Months later, in the days before the Chiefs’ Super Bowl triumph over the San Francisco 49ers, the team told Reuters it had “engaged in meaningful discussions with a group comprised of individuals with diverse Native American backgrounds and experiences” over the previous six years.
But amid a nationwide reckoning over race propelled by the Black Lives Matter Movement, their name and the majority of their traditions remained intact, even as the Washington Redskins dropped their nickname in July 2020. The Washington team later replaced the nickname, widely seen as a racist slur, with the Commanders.
A month later the Chiefs announced they would ban the wearing of headdresses at Arrowhead Stadium, where the words “end racism” were painted in the end zone and emblazoned on helmets in a nod to racial justice.
“They use that hashtag #EndRacism and it’s on their helmets. And it’s tone deaf,” said Rhonda LeValdo, an Acoma Pueblo journalist who founded the Not in our Honor coalition in 2005, to advocate against the use of Native American imagery in sports.
“I don’t even understand what you guys are saying and you have the Chiefs logo and you guys are doing the chop.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery and James Oliphant in Phoenix; Editing by David Gregorio)