Mascots in sports, and the Native American imagery therein, came up for discussion in 2020 when the Kansas City Chiefs reached the Super Bowl. I wrote a column about it then.
I’m revisiting the issue now after some news surfaced a few miles to the north of Christian County in Springfield, where a group of students are circulating a petition to do away with the use of Native American imagery at Kickapoo High School, home of the Chiefs. There is also a counter-petition circulation among students, alumni and the general public asking that administrators ignore the first petition and keep the Chiefs mascot and all imagery associated with it.
My hope and my belief is that the outcome will likely be something in between. I don’t believe we will see Kickapoo playing with a new name and mascot the next time its basketball teams visit Ozark or Nixa, but there may be some subtle changes. It wouldn’t be a good move for decision makers to simply ignore the petitioning.
My life and career changed when I read an essay entitled, “I Was a Teenage Mascot.” The author grew up on a reservation in Minnesota, and he recounted how he dressed in a Native American costume and led 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.
The author wrote of how he decided to end his role in using Native American spiritual practices in non-spiritual settings. He stopped using cheapened down versions of important traditions to bolster the image of school and a basketball team.
Regarding the issue of the mascot and spirit imagery at Kickapoo High School, it's my belief that there are solutions to be found that are not "all or nothing" approaches. Counter-petitions and races to amass signatures will only divide and exacerbate a problem.
It shouldn't be about choosing sides or drawing lines between groups of people. This is an opportunity to listen, learn, grow and maybe even appreciate another person whose views differ from your own.
There are certain cultural appropriations happening within the climate of sporting events at Kickapoo High School. Two I noticed from 2014-17 were the use of a tipi at football games, and white kids dressing in feathered headdresses, chest pieces and paint for sporting events.
As the "do your research" arguers on the internet like to argue, you can learn about the Kickapoo people and their migration from what we now know as Michigan and Ohio south and west into what is now Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico. You may also learn about how the Kickapoos lived.
Kickapoos traditionally did not use tipis, they instead lived in wickiups, which are more dome-shaped than tipis. For a football team to emerge from a smoking tipi before kickoff of a football game is at the very least, culturally inaccurate. Please notice that the issue I'm taking here is not with "Chiefs," but is very specific to the tipi.
The Kickapoos moved around a great deal, and it wasn't for the fun of experiencing travel. The Kickapoos moved to escape aggression from white settlers. They needed to relocate or be killed, and then they were forced to relocate again and again.
"This nation has overcome centuries of oppression from the United States government and their continuous attempts at assimilation. From the initial contact of the early Europeans, the Kickapoo have been resistant of the European views and customs,” a passage taken directly from the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas website reads. You can see it at https://www.ktik-nsn.gov/history/.
As for white kids dressing up in headdresses, chest pieces and paint—that is not respect for another people. That is not honor. At the very least, some of the pieces I have seen are culturally inaccurate to the Kickapoos. At worst, we are teaching children to mock a caricature of another people's race, culture and religion.
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.
On a somewhat related note, I stopped all use of the word “Indians” as a mascot as a sports writer. 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.”
No one said a word. No editor ever attempted to edit the name of the mascot into the story. Strafford still won its basketball state titles. I made my decision not to write the mascot name into the story, and I made it work. My choice didn't diminish any of the players' accomplishments.
However, when I covered Kickapoo High School sports, I did refer to the teams by their nickname, the Chiefs. I was also careful to avoid any use of Native American imagery or cultural references in the stories that I wrote. I didn't publicize pictures of tipis or white kids in headdresses, and I didn't play up the Native imagery.
I would encourage anyone, not just Kickapoo High School's administrators and alumni, to listen to Native Americans who find the use of certain imagery in sports offensive. At least hear their viewpoints from them, and don’t assume you already know what they’re going to say. There may be compromises that can calm a tumultuous situation, and it can potentially be done with the Chiefs nickname staying around for years to come.