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Tim Giago: Who are these ‘fanatics’ honoring?

Notes from Indian Country
Who are these ‘fanatics’ honoring?

One of the most blatant displays of abject racism took place at the NFL Playoff Football game pitting Kansas City against the Tennessee Titans a couple of Saturdays ago. But the absurd thing about this whole display is that not too many Americans saw it that way.

Thousands of howling Chief fans chanted a ridiculous Hollywood movie war chant ad-nauseum throughout the game and of course the chant had to be accompanied by the childish tomahawk chop. Most Native Americans saw mostly white people with red painted faces, turkey feathers protruding from their hair, chanting and chopping the air with their imaginary tomahawks.

Now let’s change this scenario with a picture of fans cheering for a team that used African Americans as their mascot. Visualize the stands filled with howling fans in blackface. All of them wearing attire they believe as representative of a black person.

${ How many ways can a white fan emulate a black person? How many ways can a fan emulate a red person? I often use the example I witnessed one time while watching the other football team that insults and imitates American Indians on any given Sunday: The Washington Redskins.

At this particular Washington game there was one section of the stadium where the fans calling themselves the “hogs” were gathered. A group of white fans brought a couple of small pigs they had painted red, pigs with tiny war bonnets and feathers attached to their heads, and ran them around the fifty yard line at halftime.

Let’s go back to the scenario featuring African Americans. Suppose their fans did the same thing to the pigs as they did to Native Americans. Suppose they painted a couple of small pigs black, placed Afro wigs on their heads, and then chased them around the football field at half time? To a sensible person there should be no different reaction to this scenario as that using Native Americans. How else does one explain racism? This would in no way honor African Americans.

Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

The most common explanation for this overt racism is that “we are honoring Native Americans.” Honoring? One does not honor another race of people by insulting and demeaning them. I am reminded of a young American Indian female graduate student at the University of Illinois in the early 1980s standing by herself in front of the football stadium on a Saturday afternoon to protest the mascot of the University, Chief Illiniwek. She held a sign that read, “We are human beings and not mascots.”

Fan after fan would walk by on their way into the stadium and hurl vile insults at her. Some even spit on her or flipped burning cigarettes at her. All because she objected to the school using a mascot that brought out the worst hate and prejudice amongst the Fighting Illini fans. Chief Illiniwek was always portrayed by a young white male student dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians. He would prance around the football field doing what he considered to be Indian dancing. Neither he nor the Illini fans knew what the dance meant to the Indian people and how in many ways it was sacred.

Charlene Teters, Spokane, protested along with Michael Haney, Seminole, and I wrote about it. This is a battle we won. The University of Illinois no longer uses Chief Illiniwek as its mascot. A small victory for us and for all Native Americans who continue to say, “We are human beings and not mascots for America’s fun and games.”

It doesn’t matter whether you are Native American or not. On Super Bowl Sunday if you watch the game to be played in Miami, watch the fans of the Kansas City Chiefs. And as you watch their imitations and antics, substitute everything they are doing and put an African American, Mexican American, Asian American, Muslim American or any other ethnic group in this country in the place of the Native Americans these fans are insulting and then ask yourself, “Are they really honoring Native Americans or are they honoring themselves?”

Thumbnail photo by Sarah Deer

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at

Note: Content copyright © Tim Giago

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