For decades, Indigenous Peoples across the United States (U.S.) have been saying what peer-reviewed studies have confirmed: Indigenous mascots and team names are a detriment to the mental health of Indigenous youth. The Kansas City Chiefs (KC), who face the Philadelphia Eagles on February 12th for the NFL Super Bowl LVII title, are no exception to this reality.
Despite nixing their derogatory mascot in 2021 and banning stereotypical fan displays such as the wearing of headdresses in 2020, there are still reports of fans using the same derogatory chants and wearing stereotypical Indigenous garments. Indigenous advocacy groups and non-profit organizations like IllumiNative, leader of the “Change the Name” campaign, have advocated that KC’s work is not done.
Crystal EchoHawk (Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma) is the President and CEO of IllumiNative and has spearheaded campaigns advocating for healthy Indigenous representation in the public sphere.
“While the Kansas City Chiefs have begun to take steps in the right direction by changing their mascot and banning the use of headdresses, it is not enough and it won’t be enough until they change their name, ban all racist and derogatory fan behavior – both in their home stadiums and away – and reconcile for the decades of harm they’ve caused Native peoples. Native Americans are the only group being used in sports mascots and names, enough is enough,” she said in an email.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association recommended “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities” used by sports teams. This has been a long battle, as EchoHawk also led the Reclaiming Native Truth Project more than a decade later in 2018, which found “Native mascots damaging to Native youth, negatively impacting feelings of community and self-worth.”
These findings were also supported by a landmark study led by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg from the University of Michigan, which found “Native mascots lead to lowered self-esteem and self-worth, and increased rates of depression, self-harm, and violence against Native youth.”
This Superbowl Sunday, Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. are again calling for the Chiefs to act on the growing body of public health literature around the impacts of racialized mascots and team names. However, many are drawing a clear distinction between the harm of the name and some of the actual examples of healthy Indigenous representation at Super Bowl LVII below.
1. Representation Of Indigenous Sign Languages & Speakers
Super Bowl LVII is taking place in Arizona, the home-state of 22 federally-recognized Tribes, and where the Navajo language is the third most spoken in the state. Accordingly, Colin Denny (Navajo Nation), will sign in North American Indian Sign Language during the event and perform “America the Beautiful” in a blend of American Sign Language and North American Indian Sign Language. Colin is a Master’s student specializing in sign language.
2. Representation of Indigenous Art & Artists
Never before has a Super Bowl had a Native/Chicana-led aesthetic. That changes this year as Lucinda Hinojos is now the first Chicana and Native American (Yaqui, Chiricahua Apache, White Mountain Apache, and Akimel O’Odham) artist to design Super Bowl theme art. Check it out here and during the game.
3. Representation of Indigenous Athletes
Below are four Indigenous NFL players on the current rosters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles to watch out for.
Some might wonder how the examples above and those this article may have unfortunately missed stand apart from the name of the Chiefs. One answer is that there are no peer-reviewed scientific studies showing the mental health of Indigenous youth is harmed by representation of Indigenous artists, Indigenous language speakers, Indigenous professional athletes, and the feats they accomplish in the public sphere. Some Indigenous health professionals say these positive examples are strengthening to Indigenous youth.
“Considering the underrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in every discipline, ranging from athletics to the health care professions, it can be so beneficial for Native youth to watch, hear, and work with Native professionals,” said Alec Calac, (Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians), National President of the Association of Native American Medical Students (ANAMS) via email.
The evidence is clear that “Kansas City Chiefs” is a name that represents a public health threat to Indigenous youth, and the stark contrast of amazing Indigenous Peoples representing at Super Bowl LVII makes this even more evident.
As Lucinda Hinojos noted via voice message, “I feel that me painting this year’s Super Bowl theme art can inspire many brown and Indigenous youth and future generations to come because it’s never been done. As a kid growing up, honestly, I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I never had the answer, because I had never seen myself in murals, on TV, or anything that I could relate to…Working with the NFL allows this moment to be seen by the kids who are on the rez…They can see themselves in it, they can connect to it. It’s relatable.”
Other notable leaders in the “Change the Name” movement noted by EchoHawk are Suzan Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, and First Peoples Worldwide.