The night was winding down at The Rieger, an upscale casual restaurant in Kansas City, and a couple of Denver Broncos fans in town for a game last month were standing at the bar, engaging in some friendly ribbing with supporters of the hometown Chiefs.
At some point, the Broncos fans walked through the dining room. That’s when a Chiefs fan responded with a gesture as synonymous with the team as its red jerseys: He sliced his hand through the air in a chopping motion while bellowing a rhythmic chant.
Slowly but surely, most of the 50 or so diners dropped their silverware, turned toward the rivals and joined in, chopping the air in unison and chanting in a rising chorus that filled the restaurant.
This city’s beloved football team has left an unmistakable imprint on the local culture, whether it be the tradition of wearing red on the Fridays before games or the custom of modifying the national anthem’s final line to “and the home of the Chiefs” before kickoff at Arrowhead Stadium.
But perhaps the most indelible symbol of Chiefs fandom is one that unifies believers and divides others: the tomahawk chop.
Now that the Chiefs are on one of the biggest stages in sports, contending in the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years, there is new scrutiny on the tradition.
For many fans, the chop and its accompanying chant — a pantomimed tomahawk motion and made-up war cry, also employed by fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles and England’s Exeter Chiefs rugby team — are a way to show solidarity with their team and to intimidate the opposition. But to many Native Americans — locally and afar — and others, the act is a disrespectful gesture that perpetuates negative stereotypes of the nation’s first people and embarrasses a city that fancies itself a hub of culture and innovation in the Midwest.
“It doesn’t show K.C. pride,” said Howard Hanna, the chef and owner of The Rieger, describing his dismay as the impromptu chop unfolded in his restaurant. “It makes us look stupid.”
The Chiefs have largely escaped the hottest embers in the national debate over American Indian mascots and imagery in sports. Their name does not evoke a slur like the Washington Redskins, and their mascot is not a red-faced caricature like Chief Wahoo, the logo that the Cleveland Indians began phasing out two years ago.
The organization has worked with Native Americans over the past six years to reconsider and reform some of its traditions. That dialogue resulted in the team’s discouraging fans from dressing in Indian regalia and asking broadcasters to refrain from panning to those who disregard the request. The team makes informative announcements about Native American history and tradition during some games, and a group of Natives hands out literature at the stadium. The team sometimes invites Native people to bless the drums that are ceremonially beaten before games.
The Chiefs have shown little appetite, however, for preventing their supporters from doing the chop.
“The Arrowhead Chop is part of the game-day experience that is really important to our fans,” Mark Donovan, the team president, recently told The Kansas City Star.
The local Indian community’s views on the tomahawk chop run the gamut, Crouser said, from those who think it is fine to others who are offended.
“As an organization, part of our mission is to empower Indian people,” said Crouser, who is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux. “And things like the tomahawk chop don’t empower Indian people. It’s still very stereotypical and mocking of an entire race of people.”
A survey of Native Americans — conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, and set to publish next month — found that around half of respondents were bothered or offended when sports fans did the tomahawk chop or wore Indian headdresses. Opposition was even greater among those who frequently engaged in Native traditions, with 65 percent saying the chop bothered them, according to the report, which will appear in the academic journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science.”
Other research suggests that even when Natives see mascots or imagery as positive, they can still do psychological harm, damaging the self-esteem and ambitions of American Indian youth.
“There’s no way that the use of Natives as mascots is honoring,” said Stephanie Fryberg, a University of Michigan professor who is Tulalip and worked on the survey. “That’s an illusion.”
The tomahawk chop causes ambivalence among some Chiefs fans — they understand why Native people might find it offensive, but say they do it to celebrate their team, not to demean Indians. Several fans said they would have no problem giving up the chant and replacing it with something else, but that the team would have to lead that effort.
Joyce Parker, 65, cringed as she admitted that she does the chop at games.
“It’s just that caught-up-in-the-moment group joy,” said Parker, a fan from Prairie Village, Kan., a suburb that is a 10-minute drive southwest of Kansas City. “Yes, I feel bad about it.”