Why Native American activists have ramped up protests outside Chiefs games

Chiefs Protest
Photography by Jeremey Theron Kirby

Rhonda LeValdo travels from Lawrence to Kansas City for every Chiefs home game, but she’s never actually been inside Arrowhead Stadium. Instead, she stands by a bus stop at the corner of Red Coat Lane and Blue Ridge Cutoff. Her team is a group of Native Americans. Their field is the grassy corner by the busy street. Their hope: to get the franchise to change its name.

On November 1, as the Chiefs played the Giants on Monday Night Football, eleven protesters stood outside on a rainy, wet and chilly forty-degree night holding signs: No honor in racism; Our culture is not for sale; Change the name and stop the chop.

Passing fans occasionally offered their own input. 

“No racism! Yeah, baby,” one man yelled out his window as he passed the group. Another car honked its horn while the passengers cheered. “Thank you!” someone from the group yelled back. But not all the interactions were supportive. One person in a passing car yelled, “I’m not stopping the chop. Go Chiefs!”

Chiefs Protest
Photography by Jeremey Theron Kirby

LeValdo has been protesting the Chiefs name since 2005 when she was a student at the University of Kansas. Now a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, LeValdo has ramped up the protests, and for the past two years, she’s been protesting at every home game. 

The use of Native American imagery such as the arrowhead, the drum and the tomahawk chop does not honor Native American culture, LeValdo says. Rather, they stereotype and misappropriate it. LeValdo, who is Acoma Pueblo, helped create the Not in Our Honor Coalition, a group that advocates against the use of Native American imagery in sports. 

“We need to make sure that Kansas City knows that we are always going to stand here and oppose what they are doing,” LeValdo says. 

The group has been getting more interaction with fans this year compared to last year, according to Gaylene Crouser, one of the protesters and the executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center. 

“Sometimes we try to keep a tally of the positive support versus the negative things that we’re getting,” Crouser, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, says. “Pretty much by the end of the evening, it’s always the negatives that outweigh the positives.” 

The group gets yelled at, cussed at, receives the bird and is brought into lively “discussions” about the origins of the team name.

“The team has a lot of PR and marketing people, and they can put on this big webpage and say they do this and say they do that and that they have all this support,” Crouser says. “So unless there’s somebody out here saying, ‘No, it’s not okay,’ then people believe that.’”

The Chiefs address their team name and actions they’ve taken regarding Native American imagery on their webpage, “Celebrating American Indian Heritage.” The franchise established an American Indian Community Working Group in 2014, whose input has helped inspire changes such as banning headdresses and face paint at the stadium, retiring the horse Warpaint and introducing actions such as the blessing of the Drum and blessing of the Four Directions. But the Chiefs maintain that their advisory group is “clear and consistent that the franchise should not change its name.” 

The Chiefs declined to respond to a media inquiry from Kansas City magazine about how many Native Americans are on their advisory group and how they respond to the protests that take place outside their stadium. 

The Chiefs website does state that “early promotional activities relied heavily on imagery and messaging depicting American Indians in a racially insensitive fashion” but argues that it has “worked to eliminate this offensive imagery and other forms of cultural appropriation in their promotional materials and game-day presentation.” 

Because the Chiefs have changed some of their promotional practices, LeValdo says the Chiefs know something is wrong, “so they should just deal with the whole situation.” 

“They think that getting rid of one thing is going to help,” LeValdo says. “You can’t be a little bit racist. You’re either racist or not.”

The Chiefs also note in their statement that the origin of the team’s name “has no affiliation with American Indian culture.” The team was named after H. Roe Bartle, mayor of Kansas City in the 1960s—he got the nickname “Chief” due to his association with the Boy Scouts of America and his creation of a fake Native American tribe called the Mic-O-Say, itself under intense scrutiny.

When people tell LeValdo that the team is not named after Native Americans, she asks them what they are named after: “If they’re named for police chiefs, then dress like policemen. If they are named for fire chiefs, then dress like firemen.” 

One of the reasons LeValdo says she is passionate about changing the Chiefs’ team name is due to the psychological effects Native American mascots can have on children. In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the retirement of all Native American mascots, symbols, images and personalities in schools, colleges and other athletic organizations. This decision, the APA wrote, was based on research that shows Native American sports mascots have negative effects on the self-esteem and social identity development of young Native Americans. 

LeValdo said they’ve ramped up protests in the past couple of years because cultural and racial issues have been at the forefront of the news. LeValdo, who is a Royals fan, says she’d “love” to become a fan of the football team, rooting inside the stadium instead of protesting outside.

“It’s kind of a weird situation that we’re still the only minority group that people can make fun of and it’s OK,” she said. “So we wanted to make sure that last year we were out here and then this year, for sure, letting them know we’re not going to go away.”

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