To avoid a cultural free-for-all, Chiefs form alliance with American Indian groups

08/06/2014 7:11 PM

08/07/2014 8:56 AM

The fight is approaching in the distance, and the Chiefs have found a friend. This is smart business, and with the right breaks can be something more important.

The Chiefs play their first preseason game on Thursday, and while the coaches are consumed with things like their left tackle, defensive secondary and depth at receiver, much of the front office has been tackling a different kind of problem. Give them credit for their tactics, too.

In Washington, D.C., the owner of the NFL team there continues a legal battle after the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the trademarks of the Redskins. Amanda Blackhorse, the woman behind that case, told The Star in June that the fight would come to the Chiefs soon enough.

Increasingly, the Chiefs are insulating themselves from that fight. It’s similar to the strategy used by the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and the Florida State Seminoles. It’s basically the opposite strategy used by the NFL team in Washington.

“I think we have the same goals,” says John Learned, president and CEO of the American Indian Center of the Great Plains in Kansas City.

“We have an opportunity to re-engage and to understand what it is to respect cultures,” says Gena Timberman, an advisory member of Learned’s group.

This week, Learned (in person) and Timberman (on a conference call) were among those who met with Chiefs president Mark Donovan and senior vice president of business operations Bill Chapin at Arrowhead Stadium.

This was one of two meetings the Chiefs have had in the last 10 days, part of their grander hope to build a bridge with American Indians instead of engaging in a fight. The Chiefs have reached out to several Indian groups, though Blackhorse — who has strong local ties — is a notable exception.

The Chiefs will point to a higher calling in hosting such discussions, and that’s their right. They have an enormous platform, and if they can help educate some of their fans about the cultural significance of things like war paint and war bonnets, or headdresses, then they’ve done some real good.

But if groups like Blackhorse’s are preparing for a fight, it’s also smart business for the Chiefs to build relationships with groups like Learned’s.

“We’re looking at this as a way to make it a better experience for everybody,” Donovan says.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated and sensitive issue, there’s a worthwhile example with the war drum used by the Chiefs at home games.

There’s a chance you haven’t given that drum a second thought. The Chiefs brought it back when “opening” the renovated stadium four years ago as part of a challenge from Donovan to reconnect with some old traditions. As it turned out, they found the actual drum used at Municipal Stadium. They’ve had celebrities like George Brett and Tom Watson bang the drum to get fans going on game day.

Well, the war drum represents something very different than crowd hype to a lot of American Indians. The Chiefs didn’t mean to offend anyone with this, of course. They just didn’t know. They could have used some guidance, and this is one of the points Learned made to Donovan and Chapin.

“I told Mark, ‘I could’ve helped you with this,’” Learned says.

Learned suggested the Chiefs go to a local tribe, with respect, and ask for a real drum to be made. Bring that drum to Arrowhead. Have a blessing. Show your fans this is something very sacred to Indians. Help them understand why you’re doing this. Have men from the tribe come in and play a real hymn and sing.

“I think a lot of Natives would embrace that, because you came to us and asked a good way of doing it and your fans would learn something,” Learned says. “We would like to teach about our culture. The Chiefs have the opportunity to teach this, and everybody wins. … The Chiefs are making money off Native American icons. So, yes, it’s a two-way street.”

There are no concrete plans about how this education would look, but Donovan says the team hopes to start rolling it out early this season. The best approach would start with a formal advisory council for the Chiefs made up of leaders from the American Indian community.

After that, the team could put on public programs to educate people about Indian culture, both at the game and out in the community. They could play public service announcements during the game, explaining the significance of things like the war drum. They could put up booths outside the gates, and go out into the parking lots before games to spread the word.

The team’s profile could even be used as a way to get into schools, which would be a win for both the Chiefs and the understanding of American Indian cultures.

“The old guys you see out there now at games (in headdresses), they’re not going to change,” Learned says. “They’re stuck. But the new fans, the ones who are going to be fans 20 years down the road, that’s who it will affect. We feel very strongly that with education and us working together (with the Chiefs) that there will be a better understanding of why some things that have happened in the recent past we feel are disrespectful.”

Learned’s group is giving the Chiefs a sort of cover by taking a more cerebral — if not passive — approach.

That’s a critical difference now as much as ever. The ongoing legal battle in Washington colors this issue across the country. This summer, the San Francisco Giants hosted a Native American Heritage Night that went horribly wrong — two Indians were ejected after arguing with another fan who was wearing a war bonnet.

The Giants apologized, and a team executive promised that “culturally insensitive apparel will not be tolerated.” The team is reportedly considering a ban on war bonnets in its stadium.

The Chiefs are a bit shy about an outright prohibition on war bonnets. In the early 1990s, the tomahawk chop was banned from Arrowhead; fans basically flipped out, and the ban was quickly lifted. Anecdotally, the response to my June column about Blackhorse indicates a similar reaction would come again if the Chiefs made any drastic changes.

It’s a key point, then, that Learned and his group are not pushing for the team to ban fans from wearing war bonnets or war paint, or any other misuse of American Indian symbols. Learned admits he is personally offended by people wearing war bonnets without regard to the cultural significance they carry — were worn by men preparing for real battle, and possible death. To make this point in his meeting with the Chiefs, Learned asked how it would look if people dressed up as U.S. soldiers to watch a football game.

But Learned’s group is hoping to win the battle for hearts and minds with words and thought, not lawyers and aggression.

“You can’t make people behave a certain way,” Timberman says. “But perhaps we can promote an educational process that can enlighten individuals in a way they won’t feel quite as comfortable (wearing war bonnets) in the future.”

It’s a high-minded approach, and perhaps an idealistic one. But it’s also the easiest and smartest way for two sides to advance their own interests together.

Learned’s side gets to use the Chiefs to access the attention of people he otherwise could never reach.

The Chiefs get to put some action behind their words of honoring American Indian culture and, most important, avoid a fight they otherwise would have to face.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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