Hearing the name "Chiefs" probably gives most people a good idea of where the Kansas City Chiefs got their name. It evokes similar team names like the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Blackhawks. But sports fans might be surprised to learn that the name doesn't actually originate with indigenous people at all. Or, at least, it's a more complicated connection than most would expect.
The team was originally founded as the Dallas Texans in 1960 after the creation of the American Football League. Unfortunately, the AFL didn't have much of an audience, which made it hard for the Texans to compete with more popular teams like the Dallas Cowboys. The team's owner, Lamar Hunt, decided to move the football team out of Texas, which prompted the relocation to Kansas City as well as the new team name.
Where did the Kansas City "Chiefs" get their name?
According to a 1963 issue of the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, Lamar Hunt considered over 1,000 different names when rebranding the Dallas Texans, with popular options including the Kansas City Mules and the Kansas City Royals. However, Hunt decided to ignore external input, going instead with the Kansas City Chiefs.
He claimed that the name was chosen because "It has local significance. The Kansas City area was once a dwelling place for at least four different Indian tribes." He also liked the short length of the name, which would work well in the media.
Despite this contemporary account, the team has rejected the idea that their team name has anything to do with the Native American groups that originally lived in Kansas City. Instead, their website claimed that the name was based on former Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, who went by Chief.
Bartle was a major force in moving the team from Texas to Missouri, promoting ticket sales and renovating the stadium to provide room for a larger audience. He may well have been the inspiration behind the team name. However, it's worth digging into why he was called Chief to begin with.
Supposedly, Bartle went by the name "Lone Bear" after being welcomed into an Arapaho tribe in Wyoming. This event has never been substantiated, but it was also never explicitly denounced. When he became a leader in the Boy Scouts, he took on the title of "Chief" and created programs meant to mirror indigenous cultures. This is part of a long history of the Boy Scouts roleplaying as "Indians."
Whether the name came from Bartle, the area's former indigenous populations, or both, it's obvious that they did lean into the idea of "Indian" aesthetics, which can be seen in the arrowhead logo and popular traditions of wearing headdresses and war paint.
According to the Kansas City visitor center, there are now around 100 different indigenous tribes established in the surrounding area. By that standard, the team name is even more fitting than it could have been back in the 1960s. However, not everyone believes the name is innocent.
Is the Kansas City Chiefs' name racist?
Despite the complicated origin of the team name, it is undoubtedly part of the popular sports trend of naming teams after "inspiring" historical groups. However, many indigenous groups have argued that this both promotes the mockery of their cultures and helps spread the idea that American Indians are as fictional as Notre Dame's Leprechauns.
To address those issues, the Chiefs worked with the American Indian Community Working Group in 2014 to improve the way they represented indigenous cultures. While there is always room to keep growing, the AICWG has actually advocated for the Kansas City Chiefs to keep their name, as they are actively working to represent Native American cultures properly.
"The Chiefs organization has demonstrated a genuine desire to learn about the issues that are important to the American Indian community. They've listened to our concerns and made meaningful changes out of respect for American Indian heritage."- John Learned, AICWG
However, one group cannot speak for all indigenous tribes, much less all indigenous people. While the AICWG may approve of the Chiefs, the Kansas City Indian Center posted billboards last year asking the team to change their name and get rid of the tomahawk chop.
The team's success has only drawn more attention to their name and traditions, causing an increased amount of controversy. As recently as September 2023, the group Not In Our Honor asked Taylor Swift to help remove the chop.
The issue may not be completely settled, but it's heartening that the Chiefs have been willing to listen to criticisms and change their behavior accordingly. As they head into Super Bowl LVIII, their name and team chants will likely come under fire yet again.
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