Teach This: Native American Appropriation at the Super Bowl

This weekend’s Super Bowl offers an opportunity to talk with students about appropriation and identity.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally written before the Super Bowl held in 2020. Since then, the Washington football team finally and officially removed the racial slur from its name. The Kansas City Chiefs are once again in the Super Bowl in 2021, putting their name and iconography—and their fans’ appropriation of Indigenous imagery—on a huge platform. In that context, we hope this guidance remains useful.  

This Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will play in the 54th Super Bowl, with the winning team claiming the NFL championship. The game will take place in Miami Gardens, Florida, land historically inhabited by Seminole and Tequesta people. And it will be the most-watched television event of the year. 

Roughly 100 million viewers—including many students—will tune in. This means that the millions of young people who watch will also see a special focus on a problematic tradition surrounding the Kansas City Chiefs: Indigenous iconography, fans in headdresses and swarms of people performing the “war chant” and “tomahawk chop.” 

An article in The Washington Post recently spelled out how this iconography can affect Indigenous communities and why it draws scrutiny from Indigenous activists. As Indian Country Today editor Vincent Schilling says, “Hundreds of millions of people are going to see what I consider disrespect and disregard for Native culture.” The article also provides a statement from the Chiefs and some insight into the history of the name and their present-day claims of supporting Indigenous communities.

It is a controversy that, in the past, has largely focused on an NFL team from Washington, D.C., whose use of a racial slur as a nickname seems more obviously out of bounds. But with Kansas City in the biggest sports spotlight this weekend, Indigenous activists are explaining how mocking Indigenous tradition, regalia and people can be just as harmful.

Reading more from Indigenous people on these choices and discussing the history and impact of such iconography in sports offer an opportunity to practice close reading and analytical skills while building shared understanding about identity, culture and appropriation.

Please note that the Washington Post article spells out the slur that is the name of Washington, D.C.’s professional football team.

Here’s how you might start:

1. Check Students’ Previous Knowledge

Ask what students know about mascots and appropriation. Review the definition of cultural appropriation. (If the concept is unfamiliar to your students, try having them compare the dictionary definitions of appropriation and appreciation—you could even brainstorm examples of each as a class.)

It’s very possible that your students are aware of local schools or teams that use Native mascots or imagery, as well as other college and professional organizations. See what examples they can provide. Students may also be familiar with discourse surrounding other forms of cultural appropriation, such as Halloween costumes, holiday celebrations (e.g., Cinco de Mayo), or hair and style choices. 

2. Read Together

Have students read the Washington Post article “The Chiefs are bringing Native American imagery, and the ‘tomahawk chop,’ to a Super Bowl stage.”

3. Clarify Student Understanding

Ask students to work individually, in pairs or as a group to answer a few text-dependent questions, using their own words. For example: 

  • Journalist Vincent Schilling refers to Kansas City fans displaying “disrespect and disregard for Native culture.” The article gives examples of the behavior he’s objecting to. What are a few of them?
  • Kevin Allis, from the National Congress of American Indians, says in the article that “mascots reinforce a stereotype and incorrect symbolism that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated.” Why does he say this stereotype is particularly painful?
  • What did the Kansas City Chiefs organization say in their statement? 
  • According to the article, when did the team take on the name Kansas City Chiefs? When did they adopt “the famous war chant and corresponding tomahawk chop”?
  • Why does Schilling say it’s hurtful “to see non-Native people using costume versions of sacred clothing or artifacts to root on a football team”?

4. Share Necessary Background

Provide additional resources for students to better understand the context of the debate around Indigenous representation and appropriation in sports. Here are a few resources you might try.

  • Introduce students to the context behind traditional headdresses. You might, for example, share the image and description of the Lakota headdress available on page 9 of this resource from the National Museum of the American Indian.
  • Help students understand some of the effects of Native American mascots by reading the section “About ‘Indian’ Sports Mascots & Harm’ in “Ending the Era of Harmful ‘Indian’ Mascots” from the National Congress of American Indians.
  • Students could also review this statement from the American Psychological Association, arguing that “American Indian Mascots” are harmful to young people. 
  • Students can use the maps in this FiveThirtyEight article to compare the most common locations for Native American mascots and the percentage of Indigenous people per state.
  • They can read all or part of this article from the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, which draws a connection between Native American mascots, the racism of the 18th century, and the ideas of Indigenous people as “magical” or as living only in the past. (For an excerpt, have students begin with “This brings us to Indian mascots...” on page 12.)
  • Often, students will hear people insist that this controversy is new and a result of “PC culture.” This list of sports teams that have retired Native mascots and nicknames over the last half century can help illustrate how long this conversation has been happening, as well as the viability of sports teams moving beyond this “tradition.” 
  • If students are interested in more detail about the history of the Kansas City Chiefs’ name and history, Vincent Schilling provides a comprehensive review at Indian Country Today.

5. Talk Together

Facilitate a discussion with students about the mascots and fans they might see at this weekend’s games. You might begin with the following questions: 

  • Right now, there are hundreds of sports teams, from school through professional sports, that use Native American mascots. Can you think of any other identities that are used as mascots to this degree? What message does this send about widespread notions of Indigenous peoples? What are some of the problems with this message?
  • One argument people sometimes make is that these mascots and cheers should be respected because they are a tradition, and participating in them is an important part of identifying as a fan of a team. A counterargument is that these mascots and cheers themselves disrespect Indigenous traditions and harm those who identify as Indigenous. Do you think these two traditions are equivalent? What is the difference between identifying as a fan and identifying as a member of an Indigenous community or nation?
  • People also sometimes argue that mascots and cheers like those performed by Kansas City fans serve to honor Indigenous peoples. Based on what you’ve read, how might you respond to this argument? Can you think of a better way that sports teams or cities could honor Indigenous peoples?
  • Review the statement from the Kansas City Chiefs organization. Which objections do they answer? Which do they ignore? What further steps could they take to address the concerns raised in the article?
  • What steps could you take to address some of the concerns raised in the article? When are you put in situations where you might speak up to someone you know and talk to them about appropriation? What could you say? 
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