Ozark basketball

Ozark's Tyler Harmon is sandwiched by a pair of Kickapoo players during the teams' matchup Friday.

My life and career changed when I read an essay entitled, “I Was a Teenage Mascot.”

The author grew up and attended high school on a reservation in Minnesota, and he recounted how he used to dress in a Native American costume and lead his school’s basketball team onto the court before games. As his pregame rituals carried on through a season, he began to feel differently about the use of Native Americans as sports mascots, eventually coming to a way of thinking that it shouldn’t be done. He stopped because he felt his heritage was being exploited and dishonored.

After the Kansas City Chiefs defeated Tennessee to advance to the upcoming Super Bowl, I read through my Twitter feed to join others in the excitement I have as a longtime Chiefs fan. In the midst of the jubilation, I stopped at a tweet by Mike Wise.

Wise is a sports and culture commentator, a podcast host, a guy who spent four years at ESPN from 2015-2018, and an ex-Washington Post and New York Times staffer for a combined total of 21 years. When it comes to journalism, he’s practiced at a very high level for a very long time. When it comes to collecting different viewpoints, Wise certainly has experience to draw from.

“Congrats to Kansas City’s long-suffering fans, who’ve waited their entire lives to get back to a Super Bowl. Based on personal conviction, I hope they understand I can’t root for any Native-themed team to win it all, especially one that participates in the Tomahawk Chop in 2020,” Wise wrote.

Tara Houska is an indigenous rights activist and an attorney. She was part of a story that circulated around the world when she traveled from Washington D.C. to Minneapolis to protest a pipeline project. 

She recounted how a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee requested to pat Houska’s braided hair to check it for banned items before Houska boarded a plane. Houska said that the agent pulled her hair behind he shoulders, snapped the braids like a horse’s reigns and said “giddyup.”

“My hair is part of my spirit. I am a native woman. I am angry, humiliated. Your 'fun' hurt,” Houska wrote.

The TSA security director for Minnesota later wrote in a statement released to the public that the incident happened as Houska described it, and that the TSA took several actions to resolve the issue, including apologies to Houska.

On Monday morning, Houska, with her national notoriety boosted by the TSA incident, tweeted our in support of Wise’s stand.

“Y’all were appalled by TSA snaping my braids and saying ‘giddyup.’ You should be equally appalled by (thousands) of grown adults doing a grotesque imitation of Native people,” Houska wrote. “I am not a mascot. Neither are my people. That’s the point.”

Sports, for most people, serve as the ultimate distraction from all of the potentially negative events occurring throughout the world. We draw our happiness from cheering our teams to victory, and winning can help fix a great deal of hurt. 

When you start messing with a person’s escape mechanism from the real world, and infringe on their NFL Sunday, they get upset.

There are some who take more pride in being a Chiefs fan than they do their place of work, and they love Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce more than they love some members of their own family. These are the sorts of people who immediately bristle and stiffen their necks when the Native American mascot debate issue rises into discussion.

“I will chop ’til the day I die,” wrote more than one white suburbanite Kansas City Chiefs fan from southwest Missouri.

Ever since I read “I Was a Teenage Mascot” in 2006, my stance on Native American imagery in sports has evolved and changed. I’m not ready to advocate for a complete wipeout and rebranding of the Chiefs, but I think there may be room for some discussions and changes.

To borrow a quote often attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, “the time is always right to do what is right.”

What’s right, right now, is to listen.

It’s time for people on both sides of the Native American imagery mascot debate to pause and carefully listen to one another. It’s also time for those of us who are in the middle or undecided on the issue to listen and weigh what is being said.

Personally, I can tell you about some changes in thinking and in practice I made as a sports reporter. I stopped using the name of Washington’s NFL football team all together. In formal writing, I refer to the team simply as “Washington.” In casual conversation with friends, I call them “the Washington Racial Slurs.”

I also stopped all use of the word “Indians” as a mascot. This was a much more formidable challenge in southwest Missouri. When I worked at Lake of the Ozarks, I thought some of the mascot imagery taking place at School of the Osage was over the line and insensitive, but I didn’t do much to disclose those feelings publicly.

When I worked in Springfield, I covered the high school girls basketball dynasty that is Strafford. I went through multiple state championship seasons covering that team without using its mascot. Whenever I made reference to the team, I called it “Strafford,” and that was it. I never discussed this decision with my supervisors, nor did I disclose it publicly in a column or on my social media channels.

Here’s the interesting part: no one cared. No one said a word. No editor ever attempted to edit the name of the mascot into the story. Life went on, and Strafford still won its basketball state titles.

However, when I covered Kickapoo High School sports in Springfield, I did refer to the teams by their nickname, the Chiefs.

I’m not encouraging a total rebranding of the Kansas City Chiefs, but maybe there are some steps the Chiefs and their fans can take in this Super Bowl season of opportunity to listen to Native Americans who find the use of certain imagery in sports offensive. There may be some compromises that can calm what is for some a tumultuous situation. They will only need to stop the cheering, chanting and chopping long enough to truly listen. Maybe it’s a conversation better suited for the offseason.

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