Lions and tigers and bears

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. If they could, would they also protest a sports team being nicknamed after them?

I wonder because I came across an Associated Press story this week that said, while other sports teams using Native American nicknames and imagery have faced decades of protests and boycotts, the Kansas City Chiefs — who will play in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers — have largely slid under the radar.

The story went on to say that during the Super Bowl, Kansas City fans will break into a “war chant” and mimic tomahawk chops, and that although many defend the display as a fun fan tradition, others view it as offensive and racist to Native Americans.

As I have aged, I’d like to think I have become more understanding and tolerant of views that differ from my own. But I guess I still have some learning to do, because I just don’t quite understand this one about Native Americans being offended because someone uses the name Chiefs or Indians or whatever as a moniker for their athletic teams.

I’m sorry some people are offended. But those names and actions are not meant to offend. They are meant to do the exact opposite.

Those names were picked long ago out of respect. Because people wanted their mascot to embody strength and dignity and character. They were picked to honor, not disrespect, Native Americans or whomever the teams were named after — like lions and tigers and bears.

I mean, you don’t see people calling their teams the Anklebiters or Butterflies or something like that, do you?

This nickname business is something that has bothered me for a long time.

In my school days, I was proud that the teams I played on were called the Hillsboro Indians. In some ways, I suppose, it made me think of myself as a mighty warrior, ready to conquer anyone that dared challenge us. Mostly though, I’ve always had a deep respect for Native Americans and their way of life, and I was proud to wear a name honoring them across the chest of my athletic uniforms.

To me, “Indians” as a moniker symbolizes something much more dignified than Lions and Tigers and Bears.

But not everyone feels that way.

“What good comes from a bunch of Non-Natives pretending to be Native?” Kaysa Williams, 28, a Native American Democratic campaign worker in Oklahoma, wrote on Facebook, according to the Associated Press.

In an interview, according to the AP, Williams said the chanting and chopping “dehumanizes who we are and what we stand for. There’s not really another race in the United States that has to defend whether or not they can be used as a mascot.”

Maybe not. But there are teams in the National Football League called the Texans, Cowboys, Patriots and Steelers. While those names may not represent a race, they do represent certain groups of people, and I don’t hear any of those groups complaining about a sports team being named after them.

Conversely, in some ways, I can understand what Ms. Williams and many other Native Americans are trying to say. I suppose they figure their race was treated horribly long enough — and they would be correct — and that it’s time for the shenanigans to end.

Most of me gets that. But part of me does not.

Because I have to hope that most of us realize the injustices of the past, and that by calling teams Indians or Chiefs or whatever, we are only honoring a legacy, with the hope that teams so named represent something at least somewhat similar to the strength and dignity of Native Americans.

When I was young, one of the first football jerseys I ever called my own was a No. 16 Kansas City Chiefs one. Athletic apparel was hard to come by in those days. But the Chiefs had won the Super Bowl IV in January of 1970, just before I turned 9, and I suppose that’s partly how I ended up with their jersey.

I wore that jersey with pride back then. And on Sunday, I will root for the Chiefs partly because of that jersey — and partly out of respect for their long-standing nickname.

Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist Gilliland Staff columnist