A person holding a sign on a sidewalk. Sign reads" "#EndRacism Let's Start with Our Football Team."

Why Removing Racist Native Mascots in Sports is Long Overdue

Using Native people as mascots is unacceptable. Racist sports mascots like the Chiefs, used by the Kansas City football team, should be halted. Fans of the Kansas City team can often be seen wearing “war paint” and “headdresses” in addition to other caricatured aspects of Native cultures.

While these acts were banned in the home field of Kansas City, Arrowhead Stadium, all bets are off as the team and fans travel to other arenas. The team itself continues to use and encourage the “tomahawk chop,” a gesture widely used to mock Native peoples, most recently in the AFC Championship. 

The images, gestures, and behavior connected to Native mascots negatively impact Native peoples, particularly Native youth. Research shows that these images and actions contribute to low self-esteem, increased rates of depression, increased rates of self-harm and substance abuse, and increased discrimination in schools against Native youth (Race Ethnicity and Education).   

In the past five years, the Kansas City Chiefs made it to the Super Bowl three times. For many years, Native peoples have spoken out and protested against the Kansas City team because their name, history, and fan behavior are racist. In 2021, just outside Kansas City limits, the Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas voted to update the district’s non-discrimination policy—effectively banning the four schools that use a Native mascot (KMBC News). 


• Support and uplift Indigenous organizers who are impacted by racist sports mascots, including Not in Our Honor’s petition.

Share resources from the IllumiNative campaign and encourage sports teams to change their names.

• Educate friends, family, and loved ones on the true history of Native mascots, their harm, and why they need to end.

While many celebrated the change of the Washington Football Team, who, for decades, used a dictionary-defined racial slur as their team name, studies have shown all Native mascots are harmful. The most extensive study to date on the issue of mascots, “Unpacking the Mascot Debate,” found that:

65% of Native peoples surveyed are offended by the use of the “tomahawk chop” by fans
70% are offended by the wearing of headdresses by fans
65% of Native youth are highly offended and opposed to Native mascots (Sage Journals).

In August 2020, the Kansas City team announced they would ban red face and headdresses at their home stadium, but fans continue to use the “tomahawk chop.” Furthermore, this ban won’t apply when they travel.  

Reclaiming Native Truth, research co-led by IllumiNative founder Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), found invisibility is one of the most significant barriers impacting Native peoples today. Research tells us that 72% of Americans surveyed said they know little to nothing about Native Americans. For many Americans, the only representation that they see of Native peoples comes from racist mascots, which are inaccurate, disrespectful, and a mockery of Native cultures and traditions (Reclaiming Native Truth). 

These mascots enforce ideas of white supremacy by stereotyping Native people as savages. Dr. Stephanie Fryberg (Tulalip), a leading researcher on discrimination and mascots at the University of Michigan, has discussed how this racist imagery impacts peoples’ psychology (Politico). She further notes that white Americans are the only group that “benefits” from using these mascots. Research shows that white people are the only group to demonstrate higher rates of self-esteem when viewing stereotypical Native mascots.

These mascots aren’t just dehumanizing. They’re rooted in white supremacist origin myths about the United States. For decades, Westerns depicted myths about this country’s founding, idolizing Western settlers and showing Native peoples as violent and aggressive. These false narratives misconstrue Indigenous people as antagonists in the origin story of America. During games, fans echo these inaccurate narratives by “playing Indian.” By dressing up in war paint and using war whoops, they reinforce the caricatures and inaccurate depictions of Native cultures once used to justify the genocide committed against Native peoples. Bans or empty statements asking fans not to participate are ineffective in ending these traditions. It’s only by completely eliminating these mascots and names that we can mitigate these harms. 

These stereotypes have real consequences for our community. Native people have the highest rates of murder by police. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, 45% of Native women are likely to experience both sexual and physical violence, compared to 20% of all women. Native youth have higher rates of suicide and depression. There is an epidemic of murdered and missing Native women in the country that has persisted for decades because dehumanization creates less empathy for and more othering of Native peoples. 

Ending racist mascots would help create a world where Native people are recognized as contemporary people with rich cultural traditions. There would be greater respect for our unique wisdom, harmonious relationship with the planet, and towering legacy of leadership. Achieving this goal is essential to ending white supremacy, for Indigenous people worldwide have been subject to genocide and erasure for centuries. We cannot advance in our struggle against racial injustice without healing these deep wounds. 


• Racist mascots increase negative stereotyping of Native people and create the false perception of Native people as aggressive.

• 65% of Native people are offended—not honored—by the use of Native mascots. 

• Native mascots and the fan behavior associated with the use of Native mascots impact Native youth by lowering self-esteem, increasing rates of depression, increasing rates of self-harm and substance abuse, and increasing discrimination in schools against Native students.

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