Ending Chiefs’ ‘tomahawk chop’ may be called woke. But Kansans owe Native communities respect.

March 5, 2023 3:33 am
A crowd at Arrowhead Stadium

A red-clad crowd packs Arrowhead Stadium to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play. (Eric Thomas)

They did it again. The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. This time, they beat the Philadelphia Eagles, as they defeated the San Francisco 49ers three years ago.

Some of us still remember Jan. 11, 1970 — the day on which the Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, laying claim to their first Lombardi Trophy. That was a thrilling experience for me and a group of high school teammates who got together to watch it on television.

We cheered as quarterback Len Dawson led the Chiefs to victory with passes like the short toss to wide receiver Otis Taylor, who broke one tackle and evaded another as he high-stepped it 40 yards along the sideline into the end zone, extending their lead to 23-7 (final score). We were ecstatic, whooping it up as Taylor crossed the goal line and the Chiefs became the champs.

But this year’s Super Bowl proved even more exciting, with the Chiefs coming back in the second half to pull out a victory in the last few seconds of the game.

As Stephen Colbert noted on his CBS “Late Show” the following night: “It was a fun night of football … if you don’t count watching 30,000 people doing the tomahawk chop.”

What? Our team wins the biggest game of the year and becomes the butt of a sardonic joke. Is that fair?

That depends on your point of view. And, like most things these days, it’s become politicized.

Identifying himself as “a lifelong and previously long-suffering Kansas City Chiefs fan,” Randy Essex, an editor with The Detroit Free Press, expressed his views about the tomahawk chop in an opinion piece published a few days after the big game.

“It’s a chant accompanied by a drumbeat and an arm-chopping motion that evokes cartoonish 1950s stereotypes of Native Americans,” Essex wrote, referring to it as “oafish” and “obnoxious.”

He recalls attending his first NFL game in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium in the days before “the chop” was prevalent and then going back later with his son.

“Arrowhead is a ton of fun — until 70,000 Chiefs fans do the chop. I sit on my hands and cringe,” he wrote in this piece headlined “Hey, Chiefs, Champions Don’t Chop.”

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrates after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 on Jan. 29, 2023, in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Curious to know how such views are going over with fans, I paid a visit to a Chiefs group on Facebook. There I found a post linking to the piece by Essex, captioned: “The Chiefs chop is under attack yet again!”

The first response to that post expressed the opinion that this is “as it should be. It’s disgustingly outdated and disrespectful.”

That unleashed a torrent of contrary opinions and angry retorts, including:

“Get a life!”

“The ‘columnist’ is woke. Who cares what they think?”

“Woke culture is killing harmless fun.”

“Don’t give in to the woke mob KC or there will be backlash.”

A political buzzword thus finds its way into sports. In case you’re not yet clear about what they’re saying, consider one more comment in this thread that apparently sought to clarify:

“Woke culture is cancel culture.”

Whose culture is being canceled? This post appears to imply that the intent is to deprive those who enjoy chanting and chopping from being able to do so simply because some killjoys don’t approve.

It’s understandable why so many fans might resist efforts to “stop the chop.” Chanting and pumping your arm gets the oxygen flowing and activates a vivid sense of engagement as it pumps up the crowd. It’s a way to blow off some steam and have fun. What’s the harm?

When someone in the Facebook fan group points out that this activity may well be harmful to Native people, another claims that “most Native Americans don’t actually care or find it offensive!” Several others who identify themselves as members of various tribes confirm that they enjoy the games and don’t have any issues with the activities in question.

But as C.J. Janovy reported in an opinion piece for Kansas Reflector when the Chiefs last appeared in the Super Bowl in 2021, others of Native American ancestry not only find the chop offensive and disrespectful, they also want to see Kansas City adopt a different mascot, dropping the identification of Chiefs altogether.

That group, which protests under the banner Not in Our Honor, continues to actively lobby for the change. A new documentary titled “Imagining the Indian” explores the historical roots of the movement to end the use of Native American imagery in this way.

The Chiefs organization, while indicating no interest in changing its mascot, has attempted to demonstrate greater sensitivity by barring fans from wearing headdresses and painting their faces, retiring Warpaint — a painted pony ridden by a cheerleader — and by having cheerleaders use a closed fist instead of an open hand when doing the chop.

They also created the American Indian Working Group, including a number of individuals with diverse tribal affiliations “to promote an awareness and understanding of Native cultures and tribes in the region.”

Not In Our Honor supporters protest against the Kansas City NFL team’s name and imagery at Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 17, 2021. (Not In Our Honor/Facebook)

How much do you suppose most Chiefs fans know about the indigenous cultures of this region?

I don’t recall learning anything about them in school until I studied cultural anthropology in college. As a graduate student at the University of Kansas, I directed the production of a documentary about the Kickapoo Nation, one of the four tribes with reservations in northeastern Kansas.

Through that project, I learned how the Kickapoo arrived in Kansas and became aware of the efforts they and other tribes were making to regain control of their own affairs after a change in federal law provided them with a greater degree of autonomy following decades of paternalistic guardianship by the government.

Another documentary produced a few years later gave me the opportunity to learn about the history of boarding schools for Native American children. Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence began as such a school, which kept the children from speaking in their native languages or practicing their cultural traditions.

The dark history of these schools gained national attention recently as the U.S. Department of Interior conducted a study digging into the past and documenting the deaths of hundreds of children who had been taken from their families and sent to them.

Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, the first cabinet secretary of Native American ancestry, weighed in on the subject when the report was released: “The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable.”

In light of such tragedies and the genocidal approach employed by our government in its historical relations with indigenous peoples, which we explored in a recent documentary about the Santa Fe Trail, it’s not difficult to understand why Native Americans might be concerned about how their cultures are represented.

Although stereotypical depictions found in films and TV shows have diminished over the years, the fossilized images of Indian warriors preparing for battle with their tomahawks and chants can perpetuate feelings of distrust and disrespect.

We could instead be applauding the efforts of those  focused on our most pressing issues. At Haskell, for example, professor Dan Wildcat is directing a major project funded by the National Science Foundation to address challenges connected to climate change.

Wildcat uses the term “indigenuity” as a way to highlight the value of tapping into the insights and creativity found in native cultures. We all stand to benefit from such applications of indigenous sensibilities.

Regardless of what the Chiefs organization does going forward, could those of us who enjoy cheering the team to victory find a more culturally sensitive way to do it?

Would that appear too woke for folks?

Perhaps it’s time to reaffirm what woke is all about — demonstrating concern for others and empathizing with their situation. Isn’t a football stadium where “End Racism” appears on the back of helmets and end zones a fitting place to do so?

It would also be in Kansas City’s best interest to make a change as more heads turn in our direction. We are bound to catch more flak just as Travis Kelce is bound to catch more touchdown passes from Patrick Mahomes — providing he doesn’t leave the game to pursue an acting career.

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.


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Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. He’s currently engaged in the production of a documentary about the local impact of a changing climate.