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Some Chiefs' Fans Accused Of Being Insensitive To Native Americans


When the Kansas City Chiefs play the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday, it'll be the Chiefs' first time at the Super Bowl in 50 years. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports on the excitement and the complications.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Why does that do that?

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The cavernous, majestic old train station in Kansas City is festooned with Chiefs signs and banners. And it is packed with exuberant fans dressed in red and black, trading phones and taking pictures of each other's families.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. Ready? One, two, three - smile.

GINA WILLIAMS: You have people turning over their $700 phone to some stranger. Pose like this. I'll do that for you. Yeah. We're all just excited.

MORRIS: Gina Williams is here with her mom, both sporting wide KC headbands that make their hair poof up a little bit like Kansas City star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

WILLIAMS: Like, nobody cares about, like, all the division in the world today right now. We're all just excited about our team.

MORRIS: It was 1970 the last time Kansas City's team went to the Super Bowl. That name, by the way, was made up by the father of the team's current CEO. Now the city's best-known buildings glow red at night. Red clothes are flying off store shelves. And Chiefs cakes, cookies, earrings, even breakfast cereal is suddenly a thing, much to the delight of fans like Tom Schipper.

TOM SCHIPPER: Brought everybody together, the town is together. Black, white, red, yellow - we're all one. So - and we're going to carry that on to Miami.

MORRIS: But the Chiefs are also carrying baggage.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting, unintelligible).

MORRIS: At a recent game at Arrowhead Stadium, a sea of fans dressed in red chant a fake Native American song and do the tomahawk chop.

KEVIN ALLIS: When you see this on TV or in person, this distortion and kind of dehumanizing imagery has lasting negative impacts for us.

MORRIS: Kevin Allis heads the National Congress of American Indians. He says that Native American imagery used by the Chiefs and several other pro teams conjures up a mythical people and dismisses modern Native Americans. Now, the Chiefs do not have a Native American mascot. And for years, the team's worked with Native groups to try to educate fans. However, the team does abide the chop. And though it claims to discourage dressing up in war paint and feathered headdresses, some fans persist.

DANON HARE: There's a very visceral feeling of disgust when I see someone painted in redface or see someone who has, like, faux warrior outfit on. But it's just such a cartoon.

MORRIS: Danon Hare is a Kansas City transplant who grew up in Oklahoma immersed in the Pawnee Nation, and he's torn about celebrating the Chiefs.

HARE: Because I have a family that has a deep, deep connection to our culture. And I have a son who's really, really passionate about football and specifically the Chiefs right now and the Super Bowl.

MORRIS: His son is 9, and Hare says he's trying to make sure he recognizes the bright line between offensive imagery and actual native culture.

HARE: I've asked him not to do the tomahawk chop in the house. That's one thing.

MORRIS: Hare wishes the Kansas City Chiefs and some of the fans would work harder to respect his culture. But on Sunday, he'll also be watching the game.

HARE: I enjoy the team. I enjoy the players. They're just playing football. I have nothing against them.

MORRIS: And so Hare and is family will join a galvanizing moment for Kansas City as the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl for the first time in the lives of most fans, many of whom will be all decked out in the primary team color, a color you can't escape here this week. As one local poet observes - roses are red, violets are red. Everything's red. Go Chiefs.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris