As the Kansas City Chiefs prepare to compete in Sunday’s Super Bowl, a group of Native Americans is renewing their call for the team to drop its name, mascot and fan-driven “tomahawk chop” ritual.
Activist Rhonda LeValdo is one of the individuals leading the fight to see the use of Native American imagery and references in sports come to an end. She is the founder of a Kansas City-based group called Not In Our Honor.
LeValdo and dozens of Indigenous activists have traveled to Las Vegas, the site of Super Bowl LVIII, to protest and demand the team alter its nickname, abandon its logo, and cease certain game rituals they view as offensive. Protesters had the same goal a few years ago when they organized a demonstration outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, ahead of the start of Super Bowl LV.
The Chiefs lost that Super Bowl to the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I’ve spent so much of my personal time and money on this issue. I really hoped that our kids wouldn’t have to deal with this,” LeValdo said. “But here we go again.”
LeValdo, who is Acoma Pueblo, has been in the Kansas City area for more than two decades.
Some sports teams have argued their mascots are intended to honor and respect the tribes.
The protests have led to some change. In November 2021, then-Cleveland Indians baseball team changed its name to the Guardians. The team also stopped using its Chief Wahoo mascot.
The 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted Washington’s NFL franchise to drop “Redskins” from its name. Many Native American groups and others considered the term a racial slur. After a season of simply being referred to as the Washington Football, in February 2022 the team became the Commanders.
Beginning in 2020, fans were barred from wearing headdresses or face paint referencing or appropriating Native American culture in Arrowhead Stadium, though some still have.
“End Racism” was written in the end zone. Players put decals on their helmets with similar slogans or names of African Americans who were killed by police officers.
“We were like, ‘Wow, you guys put this on the helmets and on the field, but look at your name and what you guys are doing,’” LeValdo said.
The Chiefs retired their mascot “Warpaint” in 2021.
However, the team’s name and arrowhead logo remain, as does the “tomahawk chop,” in which fans chant and swing a forearm up and down in a ritual that is not unique to the Chiefs.
Singer Taylor Swift’s relationship with Travis Kelce has brought a new level of attention to the Chiefs. In light of the heightened attention, LeValdo said her fellow activists made a sign for this weekend reading, “Taylor Swift doesn’t do the chop. Be like Taylor.”
“We were watching. We were looking to see if she was going to do it. But she never did,” LeValdo said.
The Chiefs say the team was named after Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, who was nicknamed “The Chief” and helped bring the franchise to the city in the early 1960s.
They also say they have worked in recent years to eliminate offensive imagery.
“We’ve done more over the last seven years, I think, than any other team to raise awareness and educate ourselves,” team President Mark Donovan said prior to Super Bowl LVII in Arizona.
In 2014, the team created the American Indian Community Working Group, which includes a group of Native Americans that serves as advisers to the team. The representatives have appeared at Chiefs home games in the years since.
During Chiefs home games, LeValdo and other Indigenous activists stand outside Arrowhead with signs saying, “Stop the Chop” and “This Does Not Honor Us.”
For LeValdo, the pain fueling her activism is rooted in the oppression, killing and displacement of her ancestors and the lingering effects those injustices have on her community.
“We weren’t even allowed to be Native American. We weren’t allowed to practice our culture. We weren’t allowed to wear our clothes,” she said. “But it’s OK for Kansas City fans to bang a drum, to wear a headdress and then to act like they’re honoring us? That doesn’t make sense.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.