Sam Mellinger

Woman behind fight against Washington’s NFL nickname says Chiefs should be on guard

The Chiefs play the tomahawk chop during games and welcome fans in headgear and other stereotypes of Native American dress.
The Chiefs play the tomahawk chop during games and welcome fans in headgear and other stereotypes of Native American dress. The Kansas City Star

The fight took a monumental shift at a protest nine years at Arrowhead Stadium and it’s about to come full circle. No matter what you think of the issue, it will soon be ubiquitous in and around Kansas City’s greatest obsession other than barbecue.

The Chiefs are aware of it, and are preparing accordingly.

Back in 2005, a group calling itself Not In Our Honor protested before the Chiefs played Washington. The protesters were predominately American Indians, united in their anger over what they perceived as offensive stereotypes passed off as nicknames for sports teams. An older woman, Suzan Harjo, one of the leaders of the protest, met a younger woman named Amanda Blackhorse, then a student at Kansas.

They bonded over their passion for the issue, and that’s how the case known as Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc. came to be. Last week the plaintiffs prevailed when the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the trademarks of the Washington Redskins.

The case is under appeal, but you should know that the woman who took on and (at least for the moment) defeated the corporate entity that owns Washington’s NFL team would like to see the same type of case brought against the Chiefs.

As she says, the spark that started back in 2005 at Arrowhead has created a fire that will probably soon return.

“What happens there, it’s just insane the things they allow to go on,” Blackhorse says of the Chiefs and Arrowhead. “They are definitely in the group (of offensive teams), for sure.”

For now, the Chiefs are publicly silent on this. But they know the fight is likely coming, and they hope a few things work in their favor — most notably that it’s tough to compare their nickname with the one in Washington that is a dictionary-defined racial slur. Blackhorse’s group has also protested baseball’s Cleveland Indians, and that team has greatly scaled back its use of the cartoonish Chief Wahoo logo.

The Chiefs have similarly scaled back some of their more obvious plays on Indian stereotypes, and they hope they have some other advantages when the fight comes. The team is named after H. Roe Bartle, the mayor who was key in Kansas City landing the team from Dallas in 1962. Bartle’s nickname was “The Chief.”

The team stopped using a man dressed in traditional headgear as a mascot during pregame festivities many years ago. In the early 1990s, many of the Chiefs’ defensive players posed for a poster that today both looks absolutely ridiculous and would never be recreated.

The team does, however, play the tomahawk chop during games and welcomes fans in headgear and other stereotypes of Native American dress.

Those are some of the parts of the game day experience that Blackhorse calls “insane,” and why she expects a fight that’s gaining momentum and support nationally to come to Kansas City.

She knows that the vast majority of Chiefs fans will oppose her, but she also knows that the vast majority of fans in Washington opposed her, as well.

She says there is “no middle ground with this issue,” that once an ethnic group is used as a nickname for a sports team, the people in that ethic group lose control of their identity and humanity.

“I don’t want people to think I’m going around pointing fingers, like, ‘You’re a racist, you’re a racist, you’re a racist,’ ” she says. “That’s not the point. The point is we’re offended. You can love Native Americans to death. You can have admiration, love what we do, how we are, whatever, and still (hijack) our culture without understanding it that way.”

Wherever you stand on this issue, there is no denying that Blackhorse’s side is making progress. Teams are sensitive to and aware of perpetuating stereotypes so much more than in the past, in response to public sentiment.

The issue is further complicated by context, that this is a fight centered around Indians, who make up about 1 percent of the nation’s population and who, in Blackhorse’s words, “are invisible sometimes to people.”

That makes getting the message out a bit more difficult. A group of people that feels offended by widespread stereotyping isn’t big enough to get critical mass on its own.

That’s why Blackhorse says the movement needs the help of non-Indians, and part of why she’s so encouraged by developments in Congress and with the trademark case.

There is a lot of momentum here, which can be dangerous for teams like the Chiefs that will likely soon find themselves directly in the fight.

“I’m not sure there’s anything the (Chiefs) can do at this point other than look for another name,” Blackhorse says. “They could be the team that says, ‘You know what? We understand the issue and we don’t want to be Dan Snyder and fight this in court forever. We want to do the right thing and move forward and avoid this entire battle.’ I’m sure fans will be upset, but still, that’s doing the right thing.

“If they want to be sensitive to Native American people, that’s the thing to do.”

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

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