Indians, Forty-Niners, and Super Bowl LVIII
Should those of us who are not Indigenous care about team names with genocidal allusions?
On Sunday, over 100 million Americans will likely tune in to watch Super Bowl LVIII, a contest between the reigning champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the San Francisco Forty-Niners (last year’s contest between the Chiefs and the Eagles drew 113 million viewers according to Nielsen). This year, the juxtaposition of these two team names—one baldly appropriating Native American culture and the other celebrating the flood of illegal white settlers into California following the discovery of gold in 1848—has led some Indigenous activists to dub the contest “the genocide bowl.”
For average white Christian Americans (like me)—who grew up identifying with the dominant culture’s fascination with Indian symbols as relics from an exotic past and who absorbed stories depicting the courage of pioneers, the grit of upstart miners, and the thrill of the Wells Fargo wagon that was a coming down the street—such rhetoric is likely to seem overblown and easy to brush aside.
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In my recent book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy, I included a reflection about my experience playing “cowboys and Indians” as a kid and the way it passively but powerfully shaped my understanding of the world and my place in it (see pp. 283-286).
“I don’t want to be the Indians again,” my younger brother complained. “I want to be the cowboys.”
It was a familiar argument between us, repeated nearly every time we reset the pieces of our “Big Western Town” play set. We had dog-eared the page on which it was featured in the much-anticipated Sears “Wish Book” Christmas catalog, and the large box appeared, to our delight, on Christmas morning in 1972. Santa had come through.
When our family relocated from Georgia for a brief stint in the Lone Star State as preschoolers, our grandparents had equipped us with complete outfits of boots, smart suede chaps (mine were red, my brother’s blue), matching fringed vests, hats, and holsters securing shiny chrome cap pistols with white plastic handles. We also, though less frequently, donned stereotypical Native American costumes, with faux eagle feather headdresses and rubber tomahawks we had picked up at a “Cherokee Village” during a vacation drive through North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains.
The objection to “being the Indians” was not just rooted in a sense that the cowboys always won, although that lesson was driven home in TV series like Bonanza and Gunsmoke that were favorites of my grandfather and in the big Hollywood westerns that John Wayne was still cranking out late in his career. Rather, the biggest frustration, to our young minds, was how restrained the options were for playing with the Indian figures.
The cowboys, as the name of the play set indicated, came with an entire town you could assemble. There was a green bank building, a brown general store, a two-story blue building that housed a saloon below and a hotel above, and a yellow building identified as “City Hall,” where the sheriff also hung out his shingle. The set contained remarkable attention to detail. The white block-letter signs, which declared the function of the buildings, also identified fictional proprietors with decidedly European names such as “Braun,” “Davis,” and “Miller.” Each building had a chimney, paned windows, articulating doors, and an attached front porch with its own distinctive pattern of white support posts and railings. The cowboys also possessed a covered wagon and a stagecoach, pulled by a team of four horses and topped by cargo boxes and steamer trunks belonging to new settlers presumably arriving from the East.
The Indians, by contrast, had no structures or shelters. They were, apparently, a homeless roving band. The image on the front of the box features the town, the stagecoach, and all the cowboys in the foreground. Behind that scene, there are a string of boulders spread across the horizon in front of a red setting sun. Four mounted Indians are perched, in silhouette, on the rocks, while a raiding party spills down toward the rear of the unsuspecting but heavily armed cowboy town.
There was only one logical script for any play episode: Assemble the white cowboy men and then attack their little outpost of civilization with the Indian warriors who arrived with hostile intent from the hinterlands.
For me, as a member of the dominant ethno-religious group, this play set, manufactured in West Germany for Sears’s America, reinforced my deep assumptions about our history and our standing in this land. It presented Indigenous people as uncivilized others; and it produced a flattering image of me and the superiority of my people. The inanimate figures firmly locked Native Americans into a distant past, allowing us to admire and appropriate aspects of their culture while remaining oblivious to the conditions of, and calls for justice by, their living descendants.
In the same year my brother and I gleefully unwrapped our Big Western Town, for example, the modern American Indian Movement organized the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” a march to demand the US honor its treaty obligations to Native Americans, and forcibly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters building in Washington, DC. A few years later, when I discovered a flint arrowhead on the playground at Oak Forest Elementary School in southwest Jackson, Mississippi, I added it to my rock collection, placing it beside my samples of petrified wood, as more evidence of living things that once occupied these lands but were long extinct. When I received the Cub Scouts’ highest rank, the Arrow of Light, symbolized by a Native American arrow, I felt proud to accept this award, and participated in what felt like an exotic substitute rite of passage that was absent from my own culture.
At my Southern Baptist alma mater, Mississippi College, the athletic teams’ name was taken from the original inhabitants of the land the campus now occupies, a thought that never troubled my mind during my four-year sojourn on campus. And when our football cheerleaders led the crowd in singing contrived Native American chants, while raising their arms at the elbow to mimic a tomahawk strike (as tens of thousands of Kansas City Chiefs fans recently did on national television at the 2023 Super Bowl)—or even in chants of “Scalp ’em, Choctaws, scalp ’em!”—I enthusiastically joined in.
Indigenous activists have waged a long legal and public opinion battle against the appropriation of Native American imagery by professional sports franchises, with mostly limited success—until the national reckoning on racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in March 2020. Since then, the NFL’s Washington Redskins have become the Commanders, and the MLB Cleveland Indians have become the Guardians. (The NHL’s Chicago’s Blackhawks and the MLB’s Atlanta Braves have also resisted calls to rename their franchises).
The Kansas City Chiefs, however, have responded with only minor changes. The Chiefs retired a horse named Warpaint that a cheerleader rode into the stadium at the beginning of games and prohibited fans from wearing headdresses, face paint, or “red face.” They also officially renamed the “tomahawk chop” to the “chop,” although they made no attempt to prohibit the practice of that offensive gesture, which we undoubtedly will see performed with enthusiasm at tomorrow’s game.
Related on #WhiteTooLong
Here’s a piece I wrote last year, just after Super Bowl LVII, which has become one of my most read columns of all time.
The Chiefs have also instituted a practice of honoring Native dignitaries at games during Native American Heritage Month in November. Last fall, the team invited a drum group from the Omaha Nation to perform and honored representatives from the Kickapoo Nation of Kansas and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
But Rhonda LeValdo, founder of Not In Our Honor, an organization opposed to the Kansas City team’s name and associated imagery, argues that the use of Native American names and mascots perpetuates harmful stereotypes that not only distort our past but also continue to harm Native Americans in the present. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today (ICT), she lamented that young Indigenous athletes in her home town of Lawrence, Kansas—located about 50 miles from the Chief’s Arrowhead Stadium—often face taunts from opposing players who perform “the chop.”
The more obscure Forty-Niners name has allowed the San Francisco franchise to mostly escape the spotlight. But that moniker also celebrates acts of genocide, land theft, and enslavement of Indigenous people at the hands of the more than 300,000 mostly white settlers who came to California to strike it rich. After California became a state in 1850, its first governor, Peter Hardenman Burnett, declared to the legislature “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”
Over 100,000 of the estimated 150,000 Indigenous people in California died in the first two years of the gold rush alone. The violence, depletion of resources, and disease the rapacious settlers brought reduced the numbers of Indigenous people in California to about 30,000 by 1873.
As we look ahead to tomorrow’s game, why should those of us who are not Indigenous care about team names with genocidal allusions?
Beyond the bigotry and discrimination the team names encourage, LeValdo also laments that they prevent many Indigenous people from celebrating the success of their home team along with their neighbors. “Sports bring people together. It involves everybody, and we’re not part of that,” she told ICT. “I would like to be a part of that community that could celebrate.”
At a minimum, we should certainly want our Native American neighbors to feel respected and included in the fabric of our communities. Despite this history, California today has the United States’ largest Native American population and is home to 109 federally recognized tribes. Over 61,000 people identify as Indigenous in Kansas, which is also home to four federally recognized tribes.
But those of us who are not Indigenous also have, so to speak, skin in the game. We should deeply care about the ways in which the celebration of these symbolic allusions to genocide dull our empathetic powers, distort our moral vision, and thereby dampen our commitment to justice.