You can be an Advocate for Native People and Culture and be a Sports Fan Too!

You can be an Advocate for Native People and Culture and be a Sports Fan Too!

by Dr. Makini King, Director
UMKC Division of Diversity and Inclusion

It’s Fall and Fall means football. And while many of us enjoy the camaraderie, healthy banter and food-like substances we consume while we watch the game, the sport – this season in particular – offers us ample opportunity to take our diversity skills for a spin. Here at UMKC we value diversity and we seek to create a community that is inclusive of all people. So as we celebrate the season, let’s also challenge ourselves to consider the ways in which how we celebrate the sport can be inclusive of some people and exclusive of others.

Earlier this year after attending the White Privilege Conference, which was held in Kansas City, the conference creator, Dr. Eddie Moore, consistently reminded the attendees of the fact that we are residing on Native American land, which had never been acquired justly. It was not a call to incite guilt or shame, but rather, a plea to practice thinking about the ways in which we may contribute to the exclusion of native people.

As a Kansas Citian this was especially difficult given our pride in our sports’ culture. Still, I found myself wondering what it must be like for Indigenous Americans to watch football in Kansas City, or Washington, or to watch baseball in Atlanta, or Cleveland.  We reduce incredibly complex and rich cultures down to harmful and erroneous stereotypes. We don images of arrowheads and headdresses and decorate our spaces with exaggerated caricatures of red-skinned faces and feathers. Our team names are tokenized nomenclature like “chief” and “brave,” and the obviously offensive “redskin;” with no real understanding of the meaning or history of the terms. And we still participate in the “tomahawk chop,” a sort of en masse celebratory movement that presumably imitates native use of the weapon. Very quickly our seemingly harmless fun becomes disrespectful, oppressive, and racist.

There are only around 5 million Native American people in the United States; less than 2% of the total U.S. population. An incredibly striking fact when you consider they are the original land proprietors. Ironically, in our American history classes we have learned so little about native people’s histories, languages and contributions to civilizations.  When we don’t have the context to inform the use of native symbols and terminology, our adoption of those symbols and terms become cultural appropriation, not appreciation. If my only valuable connection with native culture is to an arrow on a helmet, a caricature of a native person on a t-shirt and a racial slur for a team name (Washington), I lose the ability to see native people as actual human beings whose lives and lands are still being plundered. Most importantly, I feel less compelled to do anything about it.

As residents of this city and as an urban-serving university that values and respects everyone’s humanity, what role could we play in giving value and power back to native people? No one is saying we can’t still root for our hometown team and eat bad food while doing it. But if we are truly committed to living up to our diversity values, we can at least ask ourselves these hard questions.  Are there ways that I can celebrate without being offensive to and exclusive of native people? It’s a start.