Public Editor

Chiefs fans’ ‘Indian’ dress is problematic

A primary goal of photojournalism is to document reality — to take pictures that represent events as they really happen. But sometimes the reality being photographed brings up legitimate questions about whether the pictures should be published.

Multiple readers contacted me to express their upset and anger after looking through coverage of the Kansas City Chiefs’ victory over the Oakland Raiders in the Oct. 14 print edition of The Kansas City Star.

The problem had nothing to do with football per se. Instead, these readers were chagrined to see three photos in the paper showing fans wearing approximations of traditional American Indian headdresses and face paint.

“I am an American Indian and I know (photographers) would just say, ‘We’re taking pictures of what we saw.’” said one caller. “But it is my view that you are contributing and cooperating with these people stereotyping Indian people at Kansas City Chiefs games. These people out there who do this, this is racism.”

This caller equated the headdresses and face paint with blackface makeup — something we as a culture have collectively clearly deemed in bad taste. “That headdress is part of our spirituality, so that's a religious side of it that feels like it's mockery,” she said.

Doubly galling to this caller: The photos appeared on Columbus Day.

Another reader pointed out something that he thinks might be a contradiction in light of another longstanding Star policy: “I applaud the Star for generally not using the Redskins nickname of the Washington, D.C., football team,” he emailed. “However, how do you justify printing multiple pictures of Chiefs fans wearing face-paint and ‘Native American’ headdresses?”

Anyone who’s been to Arrowhead knows that these displays are ubiquitous. However, people do all sorts of things that could be considered culturally insensitive or offensive. So the question is whether it’s appropriate to publish these acts in The Star.

Context is key here. In a column or news story about the debate over these issues, I see no reason not to use the words plainly in an adult dialogue.

There are many nuanced opinions when it comes to the widespread use of American Indian imagery in sports franchises. Some people find names such as the Braves and the Chiefs acceptable, while others argue they’re just as inappropriate as the Redskins’ name or the caricature of Cleveland’s “Chief Wahoo” mascot.

(By the way, I’m well aware that the Chiefs’ name comes from the Boy Scouts of America nickname for two-term Kansas City mayor “Chief” H. Roe Bartle. But that title itself was part of the inextricable history of American Indian imagery in Scouting. In fact, the Scouts’ own Heart of America Council webpage about Bartle, who was not an American Indian, features a photo of him in a headdress just like those worn by Chiefs fans.)

Do the people who wear these outfits do so intentionally to make others uncomfortable? I’m sure that’s rarely the case, if ever.

But that’s the very definition of insensitivity or obliviousness: Not questioning whether something we do could be interpreted by others as offensive. This is not a petty concern, and I hope everyone will try to look at the issue through the eyes of the readers who contacted me.

I find readers’ objections to these types of images reasonable. The Star should avoid publishing these types of photos casually. Focus on other colorful, interesting people in the crowds.

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