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Native American sports images back in spotlight, as teams adapt to calls for change

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Posted at 5:30 AM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 08:29:17-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The use of Native American images in sports is evolving as teams respond to calls for change.

The 2021-2022 NFL season started with changes for the Kansas City Chiefs. The team's stadium is now called GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

Another change was the retirement of its mascot, a horse named "Warpaint."

"A lot of reasons for that, but we just feel like it’s the right thing to do, so Warpaint won’t be running at Arrowhead anymore," explained team president Mark Donovan during a July 2021 press conference.

This is the second consecutive off season the Chiefs have made changes involving Native American imagery. In 2020, the team announced headdresses and American-Indian themed face paint were banned inside the stadium.

The Chiefs are not the only professional sports team making changes.

In 2020, Washington's NFL team dropped the name "Redskins" in favor of the name "Washington Football Team."

In Cleveland, 2021 is the final season MLB team "Indians" will exist. In 2022, the team's name will change to the "Guardians."

Donovan told reporters in a July press conference the Chiefs were aware Cleveland's MLB franchise would change its name, but the decision did not change their approach.

The approach includes getting guidance from the American Indian Community Working Group.

"One of the things you find within the American Indian community, which is not unlike any community, is there are divergent views and you’re going to find someone who believes one thing and someone who just as strongly believes the other," Donovan said.

The American Indian Community Working Group is made up of members from different tribes.

Some members declined to comment for this story, others never responded to calls and emails from KSHB 41, and others were not able to be reached.

One member successfully reached by phone said he disagrees with efforts to erase American Indian images from sports and believes there's an opportunity to learn.

On the Chiefs website, a statement from the working group talks about the learning potential.

"We believe there is an opportunity to educate on the issues through connecting our community here and honoring traditions," the statement said.

Gaylene Crouser shares a different opinion on the topic within the Native American community.

She's the executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center and not a member of the working group.

"This isn't cancel culture," Crouser said. "This is people saying this is wrong for decades. It's now getting a little traction and I think it gets a little more traction when you write end racism in the endzone and then play that stupid song and start tomahawk chopping."

Crouser said Native American images used in sports are dehumanizing and wants the Chiefs to do what Washington's NFL team and Cleveland's MLB team did and change their name.

But where did the name come from?

Jeremy Drouin, from the Kansas City Public Library, said one inspiration was former Kansas City Mayor Roe Bartle. Bartle was nicknamed "Chief" and persuaded team owner Lamar Hunt to move his team from Dallas to Kansas City.

“Ultimately it was Lamar Hunt who really liked the Chiefs name," Drouin said. "He thought that it had class, it had distinction."

Drouin provided a newspaper article in 1963 where Hunt said another reason for the name was "a certain area significance as many Indian tribes used to live in the Kansas City area."

Longtime Chiefs fan Zachariah Partney said the enthusiasm from fans is not meant to be disrespectful.

"We're not mocking the culture, we're embracing the culture through our sports teams," Partney said.

As the team and its fans adapt to new societal standards, the way people embrace the team may look different than prior years. One change that remains is the name Chiefs.