PHOENIX — As fans of the Kansas City Chiefs flock to Arizona this week for the Super Bowl, they are bringing with them not just their jerseys and caps, but also the baggage of a controversial celebration: the tomahawk chop.
The chop — in which fans extend their arms in a chopping motion while chanting a made-up war song — has for decades been a staple of Kansas City games. And for much of that time, it has been a source of pride for many fans.
But for nearly as long as the chop has been associated with the team, it has also been criticized by some Native Americans who say it is an embarrassing caricature of their cultures and is long overdue for retirement. And now, with the N.F.L.’s championship game taking place in a state with one of the largest Native American populations, the issue is bubbling up anew, with a protest planned for Super Bowl Sunday.
“They may not be intentionally making fun of our culture, but that’s what we take it as,” said Rhonda LeValdo, an instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., who said she has been protesting the team’s chop for nearly two decades.
LeValdo, a citizen of the Acoma Pueblo, plans to travel to attend the rally outside the stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday, where protesters will call for an end to the chop. They will also seek an end to other features of Chiefs games, including a large drum used to hype up the crowd and the team’s name itself.
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Still, the chop and the fake war cries are all but sure to be a feature of the team’s matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, just as they were during Kansas City’s Super Bowl appearances in 2020 and 2021.
Amid a reckoning over racism in 2020, the team said it would prohibit fans from entering the stadium while wearing headdresses or face paint that appropriated Native American cultures. The team also said it was “engaged in a thorough review process” of the team’s chopping tradition, as well as the drum.
Still, the chop has endured, even as teams including the N.F.L.’s Washington Commanders and the M.L.B.’s Cleveland Guardians have moved away from names, logos and other traditions that many considered offensive.
A 2020 survey of about 1,000 Native Americans found that 49 percent of the participants were bothered by the tomahawk chop, while 35 percent said they were not offended and 15 percent said they were indifferent.
The Chiefs, whose representatives did not respond to requests for comment, are not alone in retaining the chop. Teams in other leagues and sports, such as the Atlanta Braves and Florida State Seminoles, continue the tradition, too, and the view that it is offensive is far from universal among Native Americans. In some cases, Native Americans have argued that too much attention has been trained on sports chants and mascots rather than on more pressing issues facing tribes.
Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians within North Carolina, said in 2021 that he was more focused on reducing poverty and crime than he was on how fans cheered at Braves games.
“I’m not offended by somebody waving their arm at a sports game,” Sneed told The Associated Press. He declined to comment further when contacted this week.
Amanda Blackhorse, who lives in Phoenix and is an organizer of Sunday’s protest, said she views the chop as worse than a caricature, but rather a reminder of colonizers’ mass killing of Native American people.
“For Native people, we’re sitting there thinking, ‘How is this even happening?’” said Blackhorse, who had long pushed the Washington Commanders to drop their previous name.
The Chiefs have in recent years established partnerships with Native American groups, and have had representatives bless the drum used to invigorate the crowd at Arrowhead Stadium. The Native American people involved in those efforts have praised them as a way to help educate fans about their culture, in front of a captive audience of nearly 80,000.
Blackhorse, on the other hand, sees them as an attempt to make fans feel better and to avoid making more drastic changes to the team’s identity.
“There’s no way to appropriately appropriate a culture,” she said.