How an offensive sign kindled better relations between Chiefs, Native Americans

A group of Native Americans sing as they play the Chiefs’ drum before a game at Arrowhead Stadium.
A group of Native Americans sing as they play the Chiefs’ drum before a game at Arrowhead Stadium.

The sign at Sonic restaurant in Belton four years ago, on display on the day the Chiefs played at Washington, is how it started for John Learned.

“KC Chiefs will scalp the Redskins feed them whiskey send 2 reservation.”

The offensive sign was taken down after a few hours but not before a photo of it spread throughout social media, prompting an apology from a Sonic executive and a meeting in Kansas City of Native American groups.

Learned, founder and president of the American Indian Center of the Great Plains, was part of that gathering and became the group’s point person in subsequent dealings with the Chiefs. He wanted to know how the NFL organization felt about the issue and saw an opportunity to create a relationship with the team that used imagery some Native Americans found disparaging.

Four years later, with the Chiefs playing host to the Washington Redskins — the two teams with the most negative brand-equity trends from 2002-12, according to a New York Times study — both the Chiefs and Learned say progress has been made in Kansas City.

“We’ve looked for common ground,” Learned said.

Essentially, Native Americans told the Chiefs what they found particularly offensive, and the team listened and incorporated changes.

“We wanted to be educated on culture and traditions, but we also wanted to hear about their impressions of us,” Chiefs President Mark Donovan said. “We wanted to understand how it impacts others.”

Learned and others in the group told the Chiefs of the spiritual importance of headdresses and the honor of receiving feathers. Fans who wear headdresses disrespect Native culture, the group told the Chiefs.

Learned said he sees fewer fans with headdresses and face paint at games nowadays and would like to see such gear banned altogether. The Chiefs say they have asked their broadcast partners not to show fans wearing such regalia, but have stopped short of banning it at games.

Also, Learned told the Chiefs, because it’s used in tribal ceremonies, celebrations and spiritual festivals, the drum has an importance beyond football chants in Native culture. The Chiefs, meanwhile, were interested in finding ways to revive traditions from the successful Chiefs teams that had played at KC’s old Municipal Stadium.

“The drum had been such a huge hit in those days,” Donovan said. “We didn’t realize that some in Indian culture were affronted by that. We asked, and it gave us a chance to understand and to work with the culture.”

The drum in turn became part of an educational program that the Chiefs have held for each of the previous three seasons during Native American Heritage Month in November (it’s scheduled for Nov. 26 this season). The drum is blessed by representatives of the Native community.

Also on that day, the colors are presented and national anthem sung by members of Native American tribes.

Learned, whose mother was the first female to lead the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, remembers when Native American tributes were merely shows.

“My mom would say she wanted to be able to share the culture, but we were like the dancing monkey when it’s Indian time,” Learned said. “They bring us out, play the music, dance, everybody claps and we go back home. There was no education or understanding.”

That’s what Learned and his group have tried to share in their discussions with the Chiefs. Wholesale changes weren’t needed, they said, just a better understanding of what offends, and why, and what could be done about it.

And what can’t be done. The chop and chant copied from Florida State — the Seminole Tribe of Florida has granted written permission for the university to borrow symbols of its heritage — remains part of the Arrowhead experience.

“It’s meant to symbolize the crowd coming together and supporting a team we all celebrate,” Donovan said.

Some other NFL teams have Native American awareness programs, but the progress made between the Great Plains group and the Chiefs have Learned wondering why education about Native culture couldn’t be a league-wide endeavor each November.

“It could be done in every NFL stadium to promote Native American month in a good and positive way,” Learned said.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff