Issue 12: February
The Super Bowl
Each February we gather to root for our teams, consume million-dollar commercials, and enjoy the production of the halftime show. This year the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs fought it out for the title of Superbowl LVII. For me, this game didn’t matter as much as the buildup to it. Native communities for the past centuries have contested sports leagues for their use of Indian mascots for their teams. Those teams: Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, and Edmonton Eskimos. Owners of these teams continuously state that the names are honorable to Indian people. Yet they conveniently leave out the ties to merchandizing the mascots: teams getting richer and white people being able to dress up as an Indian, just as the “old times” (Playing Indian, Deloria 1998). There have been countless studies of Native students and community members exposure to Native mascots. They show that students have “a depressed state of self-esteem and community worth” (Fryberg 2008). I was one of those kids, I felt the weight of non-Natives joking that I knew Chief Wahoo or Pocahontas. I even had to fight against some kids asking why my skin wasn’t red. On the contrary, I also clung to Native mascots because they were representation. Those were the handful of times that I saw Native images in the media. However, an example of the negative effects was found in my freshman year playing lacrosse in high school, our coach implemented a new team bonding method. We were to come over to his house, eat dinner, and watch the movie Crooked Arrows. I thought it was unique that we were watching a movie about Native Americans playing their original game of lacrosse. Through a cheesy love plot and triumph, the reservation team won the state title. After the movie, we all sat in a circle and gave each other Indian names. These names were to give us strength and power in our upcoming season. They were less of names but more nicknames that followed animalistic traits of people. Chad Chipmunk, Fast Snake Steve, etc. The messed-up part was that once the team heard I didn’t have a real Indian name and only my government name of Owen, they decided Tonto would be a good fit. So, I went with it. I didn’t have the language at the time to articulate my trauma or thoughts. I continued high school by thinking ‘if you can’t beat them, join ‘em. It’s not like you can just end racism’.
Today, the Redskins, Cleveland Indians, and Edmonton Eskimos have since changed their names during the George Floyd Protests of 2020. They didn’t change them because of the consistent outcries of Native people; when that happened, they listened to the ones who ‘liked’ the mascots as justification. They changed their names because they were pressured by their sponsors and the money that followed.
So, once I heard that Superbowl LVII was taking place in Phoenix, AZ. A city with close tribal relations. I was interested in seeing how the stage was going to be set. When the Chiefs became Superbowl bound I remembered that just back in 2020 the Kansas City Chiefs took action to clean up their fanbase. They took action to ban Native American feathered headdresses and face paint at their home stadium. Not ironically called Arrowhead Stadium. They even retired their pinto horse mascot ‘Warpaint’ who was ridden by a stereotypical headdressed Indian. Yet they are still tomahawk chopping and haven’t changed their name. How were they going to be appropriate guests nearby tribal lands in Phoenix?
Then the NFL released the 2023 Superbowl Poster. It was amazing. The NFL contacted an Indigenous artist in the Phoenix area to design the poster, tickets, and overall theme of the 57th Superbowl. It features beautiful desert colors. It’s adorned with native plants and animals. It has Apache motifs and designs. Finally, there was some Indigenous representation being brought to this Superbowl.
Next, I saw that an Indigenous clothing brand OXDX was partnering with the NFL to bring an exclusive collection to the Superbowl. This line of shirts would commemorate the Superbowl through a Southwest Indigenous lens. The designs were packed with turquoise, silver, and pottery.
I even read that the NFL has designated four local Native American communities as Official Super Bowl Host Committee Partners: Ak-Chin Indian Community, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Gila River Indian Communities, and Tohono O’odham Nation.
Right before the game started, they had a deaf Diné student sign America the Beautiful in Plains Indian Sign Language.
I thought to myself, wow this is really cool. It was cool because there was real representation coming from Native people, not non-Native people saying that they know what Native people want. It was cool because colonialism works to invisibilize Native sovereignty and to do this, the system tells the public that there are no more Native people. That mascots with Native names or caricatures are somehow honoring the “vanished Indian”. It was cool because maybe someone who watched the Superbowl will now see how making up “Indian names” isn’t representative of Native culture, peoples, or sovereignty. It was cool because the site where the game was taking place was positioned as being on the land through the posters, drawings, and collaboration with the tribes of the area. Settler colonialism (displacement of Indigenous communities) operates by separating Native stewardship and governance of the land and replacing it with an image of “land” that is not alive, that is not kin, and that the public does not have to be accountable to.
Then I saw this…
It was not cool because the field had an “End Racism” goal marker, allowing the Chiefs and NFL to be absolved of guilt and harm of their name through the praising of the Superbowl’s representation. It was not cool because the tribes did not receive any monetary compensation for the game resulting on their lands. It was not cool because representation is not enough. Superbowl LVII cannot end racism, nor can they claim that they are working toward helping to end racism. Indigenous representation is not anti-racist work, it’s the first step to acknowledging the first people and their unique knowledge systems. When you conflate the two, you are just patting yourself on the back for the bare minimum.
If you want to cleanse your palate from the performative signaling from the NFL. I would highly suggest reading about the newly formed partnership between the Muckleshoot’s Tribe and the Seattle Kraken.
Fun fact the blanket that is shown here was designed by my dad!
This month come join me for another National Association of Interpretation panel. You can register here.