As you watch Super Bowl LIV, bear in mind that rooting for the Kansas City Chiefs and taking no issue with either their mascot or their fans’ traditions means rooting for racism.
Similarly, cheering for the San Francisco 49ers after learning about the history of the California Gold Rush, in which white people oppressed and enslaved Native Americans on land that the United States had recently stolen from Mexico, means cheering for racism.
Let’s start with the 49ers — named after the Americans who came to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush specifically, and more generally after the Gold Rush pioneers overall — since the problem with their name is not as well known as the issues with the Chiefs. When most people think of the real-life 49ers, they envision hardy American pioneers during the Gold Rush risking their lives in the hope that they could carve out a little piece of the American dream for themselves. As American history textbook author David Henry Montgomery wrote rather romantically in 1899, they are remembered as people who “with pan and shovel” managed to “give us firm possession of the Pacific coast, since it rapidly settled the wilderness of California with a population of energetic and determined men.” While Montgomery acknowledged that there were some “reckless adventurers” who caused “serious trouble,” he reassured readers that “the stern hand of a Vigilance Committee, organized by a majority of the best citizens of San Francisco, speedily taught desperadoes and thieves that life and property must be respected.”
Montgomery conveniently left out the mistreatment of non-whites in California; indeed, one could read that section of his book and not know they were even there at the time. Yet the same men and women who attempted to become wealthy off of the precious metals in the earth exploited, enslaved and even murdered the indigenous people in what’s now the state of California in order to do so. The precedent was set by a Swiss immigrant named John Sutter who ventured to California in 1841, and was followed by others who attempted to make their fortune in the so-called Wild West. Indeed, the Gold Rush was made possible by Native Americans, including the Mewuk and Maidu who built Sutter’s Fort in what’s now Sacramento. As one Native American recalled many years later, “My grandfather was enslaved by Sutter to help in building the Fort. While he was kept there, Sutter worked him hard and then fed him in troughs. As soon as he could, he escaped and with his family hid in the mountains.” When New Jersey prospector James Marshall “discovered” gold at Sutter’s Mill, it was because Native Americans brought the nuggets to his attention without recognizing their commercial value.
Within 20 years of the start of the Gold Rush, 80 percent of California’s Native Americans were wiped out; 100,000 perished during the first two years alone. Some died due to the seizure of their land, some due to disease, and many were murdered in cold blood, not only sanctioned but encouraged by California’s government. Laws were passed that made it possible for whites to kidnap Native American children or arrest Native Americans for minor crimes and then force them to work off their fines, resulting in effective servitude. And this campaign of exploitation and genocide against the 150,000 people who had originally lived in what’s now California was hardly accidental. As one newspaper wrote at the time, “Whites are becoming impressed with the belief that it will be absolutely necessary to exterminate the savages before they can labor much longer in the mines with security.”
The devastation wrought to Native American communities wasn’t limited to outright violence. As white people continued to swarm into Native American land and consume their resources, it became difficult for communities that had once thrived to find the materials necessary to sustain themselves. As April Moore from the Nisenan Maidu told PBS, “this gold strike brought thousands of people from every place known to man into our traditional territory. And because it was such an environmentally productive area, in the beginning they didn’t have a problem with eating, but because there were so many people, they overused the area and created drought and created starvation for themselves, and along with them for the indigenous peoples.”
She added, “The Nisenan Maidu just happened to be right in the middle of this whole chaotic event. And the end product was that they were almost obliterated as a group of people.”
Native Americans aren’t the only victims associated with the Gold Rush. At a time when President Donald Trump has brought vilification of Mexico to a fevered pitch in the United States, it is important to recall that the future American state was originally owned by the Mexican government. America only achieved possession of it through imperialism in part by having white settlers colonize the land and eventually declare that a section of it should be “independent” of Mexico. The other part of this was the larger trend in American conquest of Mexican land. President James Polk started the Mexican-American War, which conquered most of the west, in order to turn America into a Western Hemispheric empire and provide more land for southern slaveowners, with the latter motive prompting such concern among opponents of slavery that it eventually led to the formation of the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln himself, then a Whig congressman from Illinois, recognized that the war was a blatantly imperialistic exercise and denounced it in one of his earliest well-known speeches.
As bad as invoking the 49ers as a sports team may be, though, the Kansas City Chiefs is even worse. We already know that their name is problematic because of the controversy over the name of another football team, the Washington Redskins. It should go without saying that it is wrong to perpetuate stereotypical imagery, engage in cultural appropriation and reduce centuries of oppression and suffering into a cartoonish punchline to inspire sports fans. This is a team that is named after a Native American position of authority, features an arrowhead on their helmets and plays at a facility called Arrowhead Stadium. Its fans engage in a ritual called the “tomahawk chop,” often wear face paint and headdresses to games and cheer to game day rituals such as a dignitary banging a drum while surrounded by cheerleaders or a cheerleader riding a horse named Warpaint around the field before the game and when the team scores.
During one game against the Washington Redskins — a team whose name is a literal ethnic slur against Native Americans (an infamous 2016 poll tried to prove that 90 percent of Native Americans were “not bothered” by the name, but did nothing to verify that respondents were actually Native American and/or enrolled in tribes) — Native American Journalists Association founder Tim Giago once recalled that “a group of white fans brought a couple of small pigs they had painted red, pigs with tiny war bonnets and feathers attached to their heads, and ran them around the fifty yard line at halftime.”
He added, “Let’s go back to the scenario featuring African Americans. Suppose their fans did the same thing to the pigs as they did to Native Americans. Suppose they painted a couple of small pigs black, placed Afro wigs on their heads, and then chased them around the football field at half time?”
Salon reached out to several Native American leaders to get their thoughts on the mascot controversy — not just with the Kansas City Chiefs, but anywhere that Native American images are used to promote athletic competitions.
“The name Chiefs on its own by itself may not be offensive, right? Just like Warriors and Indians may not be offensive,” Kevin Allis, the CEO of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, told Salon. “Like I call myself an American Indian and I run the National Congress of American Indians. So the use of the word ‘American Indian’ in and of itself is not necessarily problematic.”
With the Chiefs specifically, the damage caused is that it disrespects Native American images and customs in front of millions of people.
“When you look at the Kansas City Chiefs, and you look at a lot of their fans that are wearing headdresses, a lot of their fans that are putting war paint on their faces and bringing different kinds of things with them that symbolize a bow and an arrow or some kind of a tool or sacred item that is Indian in nature, the treatment of that is what the problem is, and the treatment of those things impacts and tarnishes the name of the team,” Allis told Salon.
He later added, “There is a certain honor and respect within American Indian communities that attaches to that. And not anybody in an American Indian community can wear an eagle feather headdress. Not everybody reaches a point within their traditional community to — and I’m going back 150 years — and not everybody had the right and ability to put warrior paint on their face.”
Allis said that these things could be used either ceremonially or before someone went off to battle and added “it kind of portrays an image of a warrior savage. It portrays and stereotypes American Indians as being uncivilized.”
Allis added that the problem with using Native American iconography in sports, however, is that it has a psychological impact on how viewers perceive Native American communities that can be particularly harmful in school settings.
“There’s colleges and there’s high schools where it’s a really big deal, because you’re talking about young kids that are impressionable and are developing their thought process about life, their self-awareness, self-esteem, consciousness, all that developed in those years — and when you have unfriendly, American Indian imagery and mascots, to the American Indian kids that go to those schools there certainly is an impact that is not good,” Allis said.
Matthew Campbell, staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and enrolled member of the Native Village of Gambell on the Saint Lawrence Island in Alaska, made a similar point.
“I think most problematic when we see them used in the school setting is that they actually cause harm to students, native students and non-native students alike, and that they have this real negative impact on the students,” Campbell told Salon. “There’s a growing body of research out there that discusses the harm that these images cause and the effects that they have on self-esteem and the awareness of the students in the school setting. And so that’s really where I’ve focused more fundamentally, is on these issues in public schools rather than with private companies.”
Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, a Choctaw and the Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, doesn’t exclude pro teams like the Chiefs from having that kind of impact, too.
“It is not just heartbreaking, but it’s spiritually and emotionally harmful,” O’Loughlin explained. “And studies have shown that for youth growing up near those types of sports teams with the mascots that they have, they’re suffering from that. They’re suffering from being in a community where they see that that behavior is OK.”
O’Loughlin also noted that there are a lot of pressing issues facing modern Native American communities that get overlooked, even as our culture focuses on offensive simplifications about Native American peoples. These include attacks on the Indian Child Welfare Act and the urgent problem of overlooked missing and murdered indigenous people. O’Loughlin noted that “there’s a lot of oil companies who’ve come into areas of Indian country where they have these man camps, and there’s a lot of girls that have gone missing, [and] there’s no data, law enforcement doesn’t respond or act.”
And O’Loughlin brought up the issue of environmental protection. “Our sacred sites, our cultural places and our water — clean water, clean air — have been threatened all through this administration by the cutbacks in the regulatory framework for various environmental laws, whether it’s the Clean Water Act that just got narrowed just this last week, to what happened with Standing Rock, to Bears Ears,” she said.
O’Loughlin also reflected on the fact that America’s education system shortchanges Native American history, particularly in completely neglecting what has happened to indigenous communities in recent years.
Campbell also expressed concern about a number of issues which impact Native American communities. Like O’Loughlin, he cited the “growing epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women across the country, across Indian country at large, and where we see these large disproportionate number of our native women and children in particular have gone missing and turned up deceased” and “the protection of native peoples’ natural resources, their lands, their waters, their cultures and who they are as a people.”
In addition, Campbell drew attention to the ways in which Native Americans are disenfranchised at the polls. He pointed to “the distance it takes to travel to polling locations, the distance it takes to travel to county seats to obtain voter IDs, the ability to use a tribal ID to vote, the lack of access to transportation, the lack of access to a residential address, when those are made requirements for voting.” As a result of these forms of oppression, Native Americans are having trouble asserting for their rights and interests at the polls, Campbell concluded.
While the Kansas City Chiefs have in recent years taken steps to improve their relationship with Native American communities, they have not banned offensive regalia from their games, ended their problematic rituals or seriously considered changing their name.
Defenders of the teams and the status quo in general might be tempted to fall back on an oft-repeated line: Why can’t they just leave politics out of football?
But sports are, and always have been, inherently political — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The symbolism of the modern Olympics celebrates nations working together peacefully in athletic competition. It has also been a place where geopolitical conflicts have heated up, such as during the Cold War when the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. When Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play for a professional baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was a seminal moment in the history of the civil rights movement. Similarly, Muhammad Ali declaring himself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and refusing to register for the draft became a flashpoint of both the anti-war and civil rights movements, but it was the regulatory bodies stripping him of his heavyweight title and licenses as a result that made his personal politics an issue within the sport.
Political symbolism in sports doesn’t stop with the Olympics and the Jackie Robinson story. There is a reason why we play the national anthem before most sporting events; why it has been a cherished tradition for presidents to throw the ceremonial first pitch on baseball’s opening day since the administration of William Howard Taft; why we’ve had a president, Gerald Ford, who first became famous for being a star football player at the University of Michigan; and why another president, Ronald Reagan, delayed his second-term inauguration ceremony by a day so that it wouldn’t conflict with Super Bowl XIX (where he performed the coin toss).
It is why people cared so much when a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, used his platform to speak out against injustice, and why they are inspired by 49ers offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers, one of the few women to ever coach for an NFL team, the first openly LGBTQ coach and the first woman and openly LGBTQ coach to appear in a Super Bowl. It is why there was so much fuss when it seemed that the Kansas City Chiefs’ star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, had defended George Zimmerman over Trayvon Martin (the full story of the tweets, and Mahomes’ views, is more complicated).
Sports have political meaning because we, as consumers of entertainment, have chosen for decades to idolize athletes, identify with teams and invest greater social significance in the games themselves. As a result, we have a responsibility when it comes to the stories we tell through those games. When it comes to the 49ers and the Chiefs, the problem is that their names, iconographies and fan cultures play off of and in some cases trivialize real history and real suffering that has occurred and continues to occur to real people.
Sure, people should feel free to enjoy the Super Bowl if they like. But fans and consumers have the power to convince NFL team owners to do the right thing. (Salon reached out to both the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers organizations and did not receive a response.) The question is whether they will follow through on that.