Accessibility links

Breaking News

Native Americans

Barbie Doll Honoring Cherokee Nation Leader Met With Mixed Emotions

FILE - Wilma Mankiller is shown in an undated photo. She was chief of the Cherokee from 1985-95 and put much of her focus on education, health and housing.
FILE - Wilma Mankiller is shown in an undated photo. She was chief of the Cherokee from 1985-95 and put much of her focus on education, health and housing.

An iconic chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller, inspired countless Native American children as a powerful but humble leader who expanded early education and rural health care.

Her reach is now broadening with a quintessential American honor: a Barbie doll in the late Mankiller's likeness as part of toymaker Mattel's "Inspiring Women" series.

A public ceremony honoring Mankiller's legacy is set for Tuesday in Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation is headquartered.

Mankiller was the nation's first female principal chief, leading the tribe for a decade until 1995. She focused on improving social conditions through consensus and on restoring pride in Native heritage. She met with three U.S. presidents and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

She also met snide remarks about her surname — a military title — with humor, often delivering a straight-faced response: "Mankiller is actually a well-earned nickname." She died in 2010.

The tribe's current leader, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., applauded Mattel for commemorating Mankiller.

"When Native girls see it, they can achieve it, and Wilma Mankiller has shown countless young women to be fearless and speak up for Indigenous and human rights," Hoskin said in a statement. "Wilma Mankiller is a champion for the Cherokee Nation, for Indian Country, and even my own daughter."

Mankiller, whose likeness is on a U.S. quarter issued in 2021, is the second Native American woman honored with a Barbie doll. Famed aviator Bessie Coleman, who was of Black and Cherokee ancestry, was depicted earlier this year.

This photo provided by Mattel shows a Barbie doll of Wilma Mankiller.
This photo provided by Mattel shows a Barbie doll of Wilma Mankiller.

Other dolls in the series include Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells, Jane Goodall and Madam C.J. Walker.

The rollout of the Mankiller Barbie doll, wearing a ribbon skirt, black shoes and carrying a woven basket, has been met with conflicting reactions.

Many say the doll is a fitting tribute for a remarkable leader who faced conflict head-on and helped the tribe triple its enrollment, double its employment and build new health centers and children's programs.

Still, some Cherokee women are critical, saying Mattel overlooked problematic details on the doll and the packaging.

"Mixed emotions shared by me and many other Cherokee women who have now purchased the product revolve around whether a Wilma Barbie captures her legacy, her physical features and the importance of centering Cherokee women in decision making," Stacy Leeds, the law school dean at Arizona State University and a former Cherokee Nation Supreme Court justice, told The Associated Press in an email.

Regina Thompson, a Cherokee basket weaver who grew up near Tahlequah, doesn't think the doll looks like Mankiller. Mattel should have considered traditional pucker toe moccasins, instead of black shoes, and included symbols on the basket that Cherokees use to tell a story, she said.

"Wilma's name is the only thing Cherokee on that box," Thompson said. "Nothing about that doll is Wilma, nothing."

The Cherokee language symbols on the packaging also are wrong, she noted. Two symbols look similar, and the one used translates to "chicken," rather than "Cherokee."

Mattel spokesperson Devin Tucker said the company is aware of the problem with the syllabary and is "discussing options." The company worked with Mankiller's estate, which is led by her husband, Charlie Soap, and her friend Kristina Kiehl, on the creation of the doll. Soap and Kiehl did not respond to messages left by the AP.

Mattel did not consult with the Cherokee Nation on the doll.

"Regrettably, the Mattel company did not work directly with the tribal government's design and communications team to secure the official seal or verify it," the tribe said in a statement. "The printing mistake itself does not diminish what it means for the Cherokee people to see this tribute to Wilma and who she was and what she stood for."

Several Cherokees also criticized Mattel for not consulting with Mankiller's only surviving child, Felicia Olaya, who said she was unaware of the doll until about a week before its public launch.

"I have no issues with the doll. I have no issues with honoring my mom in different ways," said Olaya, who acknowledged she and Soap, her stepfather, are estranged. "The issue is that no one informed me, no one told me. I didn't know it was coming."

Olaya also wonders how her mother would feel about being honored with a Barbie doll.

"I heard her once on the phone saying, 'I'm not Princess Diana, nor am I Barbie,'" Olaya recalled. "I think she probably would have been a little conflicted on that, because my mom was very humble. She wasn't the type of person who had her honorary degrees or awards plastered all over the wall. They were in tubs in her pole barn."

"I'm not sure how she would feel about this," Olaya said.

Still, Olaya said she hopes to buy some of the dolls for her grandchildren and is always grateful for people to learn about her mother's legacy.

"I have a warm feeling about the thought of my granddaughters playing with a Wilma Mankiller Barbie," she said.

See all News Updates of the Day

US Plans Clean Energy Projects for Native American Tribes, Rural Areas

Tuba City, Arizona, pictured here in 2022, is in the Navajo Nation, where about a fifth of homes do not have access to electricity, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates.
Tuba City, Arizona, pictured here in 2022, is in the Navajo Nation, where about a fifth of homes do not have access to electricity, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates.

The federal government will fund 17 projects across the United States to expand access to renewable energy on Native American reservations and in other rural areas, the Biden administration announced Tuesday.

The $366 million plan will fund solar, battery storage and hydropower projects in sparsely populated regions where electricity can be costly and unreliable. The money comes from a $1 trillion infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in 2021.

About a fifth of homes in the Navajo Nation — located in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah — do not have access to electricity, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates. Nearly a third of homes that have electricity on Native American reservations in the U.S. report monthly outages, according to the Biden administration.

The announcement comes as Native tribes in Nevada and Arizona fight to protect their lands and sacred sites amid the Biden administration's expansion of renewable energy. It also comes days after federal regulators granted Native American tribes more authority to block hydropower projects on their land.

The Biden administration will secure funding for the 17 projects only after negotiating with project applicants, federal officials said. Officials from the Department of Energy prepared to meet with tribal leaders to discuss clean energy projects at a summit in Southern California.

"President Biden firmly believes that every community should benefit from the nation's historic transition to a clean energy future, especially those in rural and remote areas," U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.

The projects span 20 states and involve 30 tribes. They include $30 million to provide energy derived from plants to wildfire-prone communities in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and $32 million to build solar and hydropower to a Native American tribe in Washington state.

Another $27 million will go toward constructing a hydroelectric plant to serve a tribal village in Alaska, while $57 million will provide solar power and storage for health centers in rural parts of the Southeast, including in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Anthropologist Challenges Return of Native American Remains

"Exhibit cases of the Department of Physical Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History, 1911. The exhibit cases contain skulls and bones, on top of the exhibit cases sit busts of Native Americans." MNH-24061
"Exhibit cases of the Department of Physical Anthropology in the National Museum of Natural History, 1911. The exhibit cases contain skulls and bones, on top of the exhibit cases sit busts of Native Americans." MNH-24061

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federally funded institutions to catalogue, report and return Native American ancestral remains and funerary objects.

With exemptions for cases in which institutions can prove legal ownership, the 33-year-old law known as NAGPRA was updated in January with requirements that researchers obtain tribal or lineal descendants’ consent before exhibiting or conducting research on human remains and related cultural items.

While many Indigenous leaders are encouraged by stronger provisions in the law, anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss says the whole thing should be scrapped because repatriating human remains hinders scientific research.

“A research collection’s ability to inform us never, never dies, because you have new hypotheses that can be used to test, and you also have to retest old hypotheses when new methods develop,” the San Jose State University professor told VOA.

What the law says

Weiss argues that NAGPRA undermines the separation of church and state because it gives traditional Native American religious leaders a say over whether and to whom human remains will be returned.

“NAGPRA was passed with the requirement that two of its [seven] committee members must be traditional Indian religious leaders,” she said. “Further, it allows only one type of religious evidence to be used in repatriation — and that's Native American creationism.”

Weiss says the law has led to institutional guidelines for the handling of remains based on what she calls tribal “mythology,” including a provision at her university that blocked people who are menstruating from handling skeletal remains.

“And the more you allow the acceptance of this kind of superstitious pseudo-religion to creep in, the more widespread it becomes,” she says.

In November 2021, San Jose State’s Anthropology Department issued guidelines on the handling of Native American ancestral remains which read, “Menstruating personnel will not be permitted to handle ancestors.”

The university rescinded that in April 2022.

Long history of grave robbing

Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, is an Indigenous geographer at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He says Weiss is misguided.

“On its face, she makes what looks to be [a] convincing and appealing argument that scientists are working for the betterment of humankind and that Indigenous opposition is based in which she terms ‘pseudo-science’ and stifling the process,” he said. “What she doesn't really engage with is a very long history of grave robbing of Indigenous burial sites in the name of science.”

Smiles gave the example of mid-19th Century “craniologist” Samuel Morton who amassed and measured hundreds of human skulls to support his belief in five races, each created separately, whose cranial size determined their place in the racial hierarchy.

“In their mental character, the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge,” he wrote in his 1839 book, "Crania Americana."

Smiles says, “There's been a really long history of people treating Indigenous remains as just simply objects of curiosity, as things that are made to be studied, rather than belonging to human beings once upon a time.”

NAGPRA previously allowed institutions to retain artifacts they deemed “culturally unidentifiable.” That provision has now been removed, and tribal historians and religious leaders will now have a voice in determining where those items should go.

Attorney Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, heads the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit that helps tribes navigate NAGPRA processes.

“The law is very clear that institutions do not own Native bodies or cultural items unless they can prove a right of possession,” she said. “If some tribes ask for certain accommodations and protocols, that's because they're the true owners.”

O’Loughlin stresses that NAGPRA does not prohibit research or display of Native remains.

“It simply requires consent. The whole point of the law is to bring tribes to the table where they've never been allowed before and to educate museums about items in their collections and why they are significant.”

Anthropologist Challenges Return of Native American Remains

FILE — Artifacts sit outside the Two Museums' Archaeology Collections Storage room in Jackson, Mississippi, March 19, 2021. At the time, Chickasaw ancestors and artifacts had been collected and were to be repatriated to Native hands to be laid in their final resting place.
FILE — Artifacts sit outside the Two Museums' Archaeology Collections Storage room in Jackson, Mississippi, March 19, 2021. At the time, Chickasaw ancestors and artifacts had been collected and were to be repatriated to Native hands to be laid in their final resting place.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federally funded institutions to catalog, report and return Native American ancestral remains and funerary objects.

With exemptions for cases in which institutions can prove legal ownership, the 33-year-old law known as NAGPRA was updated in January with requirements that researchers obtain tribal or lineal descendants' consent before exhibiting or conducting research on human remains and related cultural items.

While many Indigenous leaders are encouraged by stronger provisions in the law, anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss says the whole thing should be scrapped because repatriating human remains hinders scientific research.

"A research collection's ability to inform us never, never dies, because you have new hypotheses that can be used to test, and you also have to retest old hypotheses when new methods develop," the San Jose State University professor told VOA.

What the law says

Weiss argues that NAGPRA undermines the separation of church and state because it gives traditional Native American religious leaders a say over whether and to whom human remains will be returned.

"NAGPRA was passed with the requirement that two of its [seven] committee members must be traditional Indian religious leaders," she said. "Further, it allows only one type of religious evidence to be used in repatriation — and that's Native American creationism."

Weiss says the law has led to institutional guidelines for the handling of remains based on what she calls tribal "mythology," including a provision at her university that blocked people who are menstruating from handling skeletal remains.

"And the more you allow the acceptance of this kind of superstitious pseudoreligion to creep in, the more widespread it becomes," she said

In November 2021, San Jose State's Anthropology Department issued guidelines on the handling of Native American ancestral remains that read, "Menstruating personnel will not be permitted to handle ancestors."

The university rescinded that in April 2022.

History of grave robbing

Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, is an Indigenous geographer at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He said Weiss is misguided.

"On its face, she makes what looks to be [a] convincing and appealing argument that scientists are working for the betterment of humankind and that Indigenous opposition is based in which she terms 'pseudoscience' and stifling the process," he said. "What she doesn't really engage with is a very long history of grave robbing of Indigenous burial sites in the name of science."

Smiles gave the example of mid-19th-century "craniologist" Samuel Morton who amassed and measured hundreds of human skulls to support his belief in five races, each created separately, whose cranial size determined their place in the racial hierarchy.

"In their mental character, the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge," he wrote in his 1839 book, Crania Americana.

Smiles said, "There's been a really long history of people treating Indigenous remains as just simply objects of curiosity, as things that are made to be studied, rather than belonging to human beings once upon a time."

NAGPRA previously allowed institutions to retain artifacts they deemed "culturally unidentifiable." That provision has now been removed, and tribal historians and religious leaders will now have a voice in determining where those items should go.

Attorney Shannon O'Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, heads the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit that helps tribes navigate NAGPRA processes.

"The law is very clear that institutions do not own Native bodies or cultural items unless they can prove a right of possession," she said. "If some tribes ask for certain accommodations and protocols, that's because they're the true owners."

O'Loughlin stressed that NAGPRA does not prohibit research or display of Native remains.

"It simply requires consent. The whole point of the law is to bring tribes to the table where they've never been allowed before and to educate museums about items in their collections and why they are significant."

Native American News Roundup Feb. 4-10, 2024

This George E. "Gus" Trager photograph shows soldiers holding moccasins and other items they have looted from the dead at the Wounded Knee Massacre site, 1890.
This George E. "Gus" Trager photograph shows soldiers holding moccasins and other items they have looted from the dead at the Wounded Knee Massacre site, 1890.

U.S. Senator Brian Schatz took to the Senate floor on February 1 to demand that museums and federal agencies comply with the law and return to Native American tribes all ancestral remains and funerary objects in their collections.

Passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, directs all federally funded institutions to catalog all Native American human remains, funerary items and objects of cultural significance in their collections, submit the information to a National Park Service database, and work with tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, or NHOs, to repatriate them.

A January update to NAGPRA now requires institutions to “obtain free, prior and informed consent from lineal descendants, tribes or NHOs before allowing any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items.”

“Give the items back. Comply with federal law. Hurry,” the Hawaii senator said.

Schatz credited institutions that have stepped up repatriation efforts, including Harvard University, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Chicago’s Field Museum. But tens of thousands of ancestral remains are still in collections covered by the law.

“The U.S. government literally stole people’s bones. Soldiers and agents overturned graves and took whatever they could find. And these weren’t isolated incidents — they happened all across the country,” Schatz said.

"The theft of hundreds of thousands of remains and items over generations was unconscionable in and of itself, but the legacy of that cruelty continues to this day, because these museums and universities continue to hold onto these sacred items in violation of everything that is right and moral — and importantly, in violation of federal law.”

Read more:

FILE - South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, center, is joined by other Republican governors as she speaks during a news conference along the Rio Grande on Aug. 21, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas.
FILE - South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, center, is joined by other Republican governors as she speaks during a news conference along the Rio Grande on Aug. 21, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Governor, tribal president clash over politics of immigration

Oglala Lakota tribal President Frank Star Comes Out has banned South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after a speech in which she accused the Biden administration of failing to protect states from an “invasion” of immigrants across the southern border.

“South Dakota is directly affected by this invasion,” she said in a joint address to state lawmakers on January 31. “We are affected by cartel presence on our tribal reservations; by the spread of drugs and human trafficking throughout our communities; and by the drain on our resources at the local, state and federal level.”

Noem invoked the U.S. Constitution and an 18th-century essay by founder Alexander Hamilton to defend states’ rights to send militias to repel invasions. She also said she is willing to send razor wire and South Dakota National Guard troops to Texas to help the state defend its border with Mexico.

“Only entry plus enmity constitutes an invasion,” Star Comes Out countered in a statement posted to Facebook. “The unlawful entry of people into the United States cannot be construed as an invasion.”

He said, "Many of the people coming to the southern border of the United States in search of jobs and a better life are Indian people," including from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, "and don't deserve to be dehumanized and mistreated."

Star Comes Out said Noem wants to campaign on border issues to get former President Donald Trump reelected “and, in turn, increase her chances of being selected by Trump to be his running mate as Vice President."

Noem responded to Star Comes Out’s Facebook post with a statement saying she has worked for years to build relationships with South Dakota tribes and to deliver services to tribal communities, including health care, economic development, social services, housing, food programs, suicide prevention and drug addiction treatment.

“It is unfortunate that President Star Comes Out chose to bring politics into a discussion regarding the effects of our federal government’s failure to enforce federal laws at the southern border and on tribal lands,” Noem said. “My focus continues to be on working together to solve those problems.”

FILE - Customers shop for produce in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 22, 2022. A new poll shows that half of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders under 34 believe the U.S. is “too supportive” of Israel.
FILE - Customers shop for produce in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 22, 2022. A new poll shows that half of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders under 34 believe the U.S. is “too supportive” of Israel.

Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders split over US support for Israelis and Palestinians

Polling shows divided opinion on the war in Gaza among Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Around half of those surveyed believe the United States is “too supportive” of Israel (48%) and “not supportive enough” (49%) of Palestinians in the current war in Gaza.

AAPI Data and Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs polled 1,091 Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in early December. Adults ages 60 and older are more likely to view Israel as an ally than younger people in the survey.

About half of AAPI adults view India as primarily a U.S. partner that does not share U.S. interests and values. A majority say Japan is an ally that does share U.S. interests and values, while about one-third of AAPI adults see China as either a rival or an adversary.

The poll is part of an ongoing project exploring the views of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, whose views may not show up in other surveys because of language barriers. Participants were offered the choice to answer questions in English, Mandarin Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean.

Read more:

FILE - This Feb. 26, 2015, photo, shows an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near Mandaree, North Dakota.
FILE - This Feb. 26, 2015, photo, shows an oil well on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near Mandaree, North Dakota.

Ecologist: Not all Native Americans are ‘exemplary conservationists’

In a lengthy opinion piece published this week on the Wildlife News website, ecologist and writer George Wuerthner disputes what he calls a “false narrative” that Native American tribal groups universally oppose behaviors and practices that are harmful to the environment.

“People are afraid … to suggest that tribal people are like other humans and are capable of good and bad conservation positions,” he wrote. “At the same time, any information that might temper that conclusion is ignored or suppressed.”

He listed dozens of tribal policies and activities that conservationists say harm the environment, including tribal logging projects in several states, wolf and bison kills, and a National Park Service-sanctioned eagle kill in New Mexico.

At least 12 tribes own oil and gas fields on their reservations. The Navajo Nation owns three coal mines in Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico — making it the third-largest U.S. coal company. It also owns a share of a coal-fired power plant and has partnered on a lithium extraction project in Arizona.

While Wuerthner said he recognizes “numerous examples where Indigenous people have promoted environmental protection,” he opposes the Biden administration’s agreements with tribes to co-manage public lands.

Read more:

For Native American Activists, the Kansas City Chiefs Have It All Wrong

Rhonda LeValdo poses on Feb. 6, 2024, in Lawrence, Kansas. The Kansas City Chiefs, her hometown team and the focus of her protest, are playing in the Super Bowl this weekend. Levaldo is renewing her call for the team to change its name and ditch its logo.
Rhonda LeValdo poses on Feb. 6, 2024, in Lawrence, Kansas. The Kansas City Chiefs, her hometown team and the focus of her protest, are playing in the Super Bowl this weekend. Levaldo is renewing her call for the team to change its name and ditch its logo.

Rhonda LeValdo is exhausted, but she's refusing to slow down. For the fourth time in five years, her hometown team and the focus of her decadeslong activism against the use of Native American imagery and references in sports is in the Super Bowl.

As the Kansas City Chiefs prepare for Sunday's big game, so does LeValdo. She and dozens of other Indigenous activists are in Las Vegas to protest and demand the team change its name and ditch its logo and rituals they say are offensive.

"I've spent so much of my personal time and money on this issue. I really hoped that our kids wouldn't have to deal with this," said LeValdo, who founded and leads a group called Not In Our Honor. "But here we go again."

Her concern for children is founded. Research has shown the use of Native American imagery and stereotypes in sports have negative psychological effects on Native youth and encourage non-Native children to discriminate against them.

"There's no other group in this country subjected to this kind of cultural degradation," said Phil Gover, who founded a school dedicated to Native youth in Oklahoma City.

"It's demeaning. It tells Native kids that the rest of society, the only thing they ever care to know about you and your culture are these mocking minstrel shows," he said, adding that what non-Native children learn are stereotypes.

LeValdo, an Acoma Pueblo journalist and faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University, has been in the Kansas City area for more than two decades.

She arrived from Nevada as a college student. In 2005, when Kansas City was playing Washington's football team, she and other Indigenous students organized around their anger at the offensive names and iconography used by both teams.

Some sports franchises made changes in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Washington team dropped its name, which is considered a racial slur, after calls dating back to the 1960s by Native advocates such as Suzan Harjo. In 2021, the Cleveland baseball team changed its name from the Indians to the Guardians.

FILE - Kansas City Chiefs fans do the "tomahawk chop" before the start of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 16, 2022, in Kansas City, Missouri.
FILE - Kansas City Chiefs fans do the "tomahawk chop" before the start of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 16, 2022, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Ahead of the 2020 season, the Chiefs barred fans from wearing headdresses or face paint referencing or appropriating Native American culture in Arrowhead Stadium, although some still have.

"End Racism" was written in the end zone. Players put decals on their helmets with similar slogans or names of Black people killed by police.

"We were like, 'Wow, you guys put this on the helmets and on the field, but look at your name and what you guys are doing,'" LeValdo said.

The next year, the Chiefs retired their mascot, a horse named Warpaint that a cheerleader would ride onto the field every time the team scored a touchdown. In the 1960s, a man wearing a headdress rode the horse.

The team's name and arrowhead logo remain, as does the "tomahawk chop," in which fans chant and swing a forearm up and down in a ritual that is not unique to the Chiefs.

The added attention on the team this season thanks to singer Taylor Swift's relationship with tight end Travis Kelce isn't lost on Indigenous activists. LeValdo said her fellow activists made a sign for this weekend reading, "Taylor Swift doesn't do the chop. Be like Taylor."

"We were watching. We were looking to see if she was going to do it. But she never did," LeValdo said.

The Chiefs say the team was named after Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, who was nicknamed "The Chief" and helped lure the franchise from Dallas in 1963.

They also say they have worked in recent years to eliminate offensive imagery.

"We've done more over the last seven years, I think, than any other team to raise awareness and educate ourselves," Chiefs President Mark Donovan said ahead of last year's Super Bowl.

The team has made a point to highlight two Indigenous players: long snapper James Winchester, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and center Creed Humphrey, who is from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma.

FILE - A billboard calling for a name change and an end to the Kansas City Chiefs "tomahawk chop" stands along Interstate 70 in Kansas City, Missouri, on Feb. 3, 2021.
FILE - A billboard calling for a name change and an end to the Kansas City Chiefs "tomahawk chop" stands along Interstate 70 in Kansas City, Missouri, on Feb. 3, 2021.

In 2014, the Chiefs launched the American Indian Community Working Group, which has Native Americans serving as advisers, to educate the team on issues facing the Indigenous population. As a result, Native American representatives have been featured at games, sometimes offering ceremonial blessings.

"The members of that working group weren't people that were involved in any of the organizations that actually serve Natives in Kansas City," said Gaylene Crouser, executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center, which provides health, welfare and cultural services to the Indigenous community. Crouser is among those who plan to protest in Las Vegas this weekend.

U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, sees the label "Chief" as a term of endearment. He has been a Chiefs fan since he moved to Kansas City more than half a century ago, although he said it "wouldn't bother me that much" if the name were changed.

"A chief was somebody with enormous influence," said Cleaver, who is Black, making a reference to tribal chiefs in Africa. "As long as the name is not an insult or an invective, then I'm OK with it."

The story presented by the Chiefs features the message that the team is honoring Native culture. But Crouser calls that a "PR stunt."

"There's no honor in you painting your face and putting on a costume and cosplaying our culture," Crouser said. "The sheer entitlement of people outside our community telling us they're honoring us is so incredibly frustrating."

LeValdo is very conscious of who gets to own a narrative. As a University of Kansas journalism student in the early 2000s, she said a professor told her she would be too biased as a Native woman to report on stories about Native people. When she entered the world of video journalism, she was told she "didn't have the look" to be on camera.

During Chiefs home games, she and other Indigenous activists stand outside Arrowhead with signs saying, "Stop the Chop" and "This Does Not Honor Us." The sounds of a large drum and thousands of fans imitating a "war chant" as they swing their arms thunder from the stadium.

For LeValdo, the pain fueling her anger and activism is rooted in the oppression, killing and displacement of her ancestors and the lingering effects those injustices have on her community.

"We weren't even allowed to be Native American. We weren't allowed to practice our culture. We weren't allowed to wear our clothes," she said. "But it's OK for Kansas City fans to bang a drum, to wear a headdress and then to act like they're honoring us? That doesn't make sense."

Load more

XS
SM
MD
LG