This is a tale of two chiefs.
On Feb. 2, in front of the world, the NFL team from Kansas City will take to the field for the Super Bowl, wearing arrowheads on their helmets and calling themselves the "Chiefs."
It won’t be unlike other sports teams in Cleveland, Washington, D.C. (area), and Chicago that do similar things, but more than 100 million people watch the Super Bowl — one of the most-watched events on Earth.
And what will the world see?
A bunch of grown men, dressed up like "Indians," fighting with a bunch of other men over land (ironically, the other team, the San Francisco 49ers, bases its name on gold miners who historically dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land in California).
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of fans — many with face paint and wearing headdresses while beating plastic drums and performing the "Tomahawk Chop" — will cheer while the Chiefs struggle to protect and steal territory.
It’s America’s favourite pastime: violently taking land from the "Indians."
The NFL title game will not only feature the story of America, but some lies, too.
The Kansas City football team’s name, for instance, is a misrepresentation.
The name "Chiefs" didn’t come from any specific Indigenous peoples. However, it refers to former mayor Harold Roe Bartle, who (according to research this week by journalist Vincent Shilling for an article in Indian Country Today) founded a "fake Indian Boy Scout tribe" that fetishized and romanticized Indigenous cultures.
After the team was lured to Kansas City from Dallas in 1960, Bartle insisted it be named after him, the "chief" of his "tribe." So, just as they’ve been doing for six decades, the fake Chiefs will play — and this time, the entire world will watch.
Politicians, the American Psychological Association, and even the Kansas City Star (which covers the team and wrote an editorial this week) has called for an end to the name and the "divisive traditions" associated with it.
Team officials, however, refuse to give it up.
Which brings me to the second chief.
On Wednesday, the board of Winnipeg South Minor Baseball Association voted unanimously to no longer use the name "Chiefs" for its triple-A teams.
"There is a strong emotional tie to this name," says the statement from the association posted to Twitter, "(but) we have been made aware that many people in the Indigenous community do find it offensive."
I first heard about the interest in changing the name when I was invited to a board meeting in December. After my involvement with the Mitchell Mustangs minor hockey association (formerly the "Mohawks" until changing the name last season), I was asked to give a talk on the problems of racialized logos and mascots.
As I’ve written in other columns, "Indian" logos and mascots don’t honour anyone, they disrespect and dishonour Indigenous peoples through ignorance and stereotypes. Once in a while, like in the case of the Florida State Seminoles, an Indigenous nation can consent to the name, and that’s different.
In the case of the NFL team based in Kansas City, that name isn’t about Indigenous peoples at all — even as it pretends to be.
In my talk, I told the association there’s a reason "Indian" heads on logos are decapitated, jerseys are the colour of blood, and violent images (tomahawks, spears, and arrowheads) are used.
The use of "Chiefs" by the association, however, wasn’t quite the same. The term was not a totalizing descriptor, but a title a person earns and embodies; this is how the group had used it for years.
While acknowledging it was used to describe "Indians" when the association was founded, team organizers worked hard to change the name’s legacy and connect it to a sense of leadership. Even reducing the logo to just a ‘C.’
The "Chiefs" therefore tried to resemble the work of a fire chief or chief of surgery, not totalize Indigenous peoples. While noble, this was a losing battle. The term is synonymous with "Indian."
In laws such as the Indian Act, chiefs are decreed to be the elected representatives of First Nations, who represent their community to the federal government and in organizations such as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
A chief, however, isn’t an Indigenous word or concept; Indigenous communities don’t traditionally, or even presently, have one single leader.
In ceremonies, traditional governments or everyday life, communities have multiple leaders operating at the same time. If anything, we have an endless amount of "chiefs."
For Anishinaabe like myself, we call leaders ogimaag, which means "someone who has earned the respect of many." In some communities, this role is inherited; in others, it’s earned.
Explaining why they voted to change the name, Winnipeg South Minor Baseball Association officials explained: "In Canada, we need to remember that ‘We are all treaty people and we need to demonstrate our commitment to reconciliation.’" While players will no longer be called Chiefs, they have earned a lot of respect.
I can’t say the same thing about the fake Chiefs, who get much more attention.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Friday, January 24, 2020 at 11:14 PM CST: Fixes typo.
January 25, 2020 at 2:55 PM: clarification
January 26, 2020 at 9:06 AM: Changes to tomahawk chop. Adds moved to Kansas City.