The Kansas City Chiefs name represents a form of cultural appropriation, but the backstory is more bizarre than you think

The Washington football team has received considerable criticism over the years for its offensive name, and deservedly so. Less well known is the story behind how the Kansas City NFL franchise got the name “Chiefs,” and its ties to Boy Scout history.

There are several versions of the story, but one consistent thread in the telling is that the team is  named after a white man who appropriated Native traditions for the Boy Scouts — and who went by the nickname “Chief.”

Team logo. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Full credit to Indian Country Today for running a series of stories that lay out the history of the Boy Scouts and cultural appropriation, one aspect of which relates to how the Kansas City Chiefs team got its name.

The story needs to start with painful history lesson and the contradictions Americans have held — and continue to hold — towards indigenous peoples and their cultures.

Ernest Thompson Seton (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

An Indian Country Today story starts by noting how the Boy Scouts have extensively used Native-themed adornments and regalia in its ceremonies and outings ever since it started in the early 1900s.

Ironically, the 1900s were rife with Indian children being taken from their homes and were systematically forced to assimilate into white culture while attending religious organization run boarding schools. While Native American children in these schools were forced to stop speaking their languages and had to learn English while threatened with severe punishments, the early boy scouts were assimilating the Native culture that was so frowned upon.

In Native culture, showing Native culture was admonished, while in white culture, wearing Native ‘regalia’ was celebrated.

The Boy Scout’s origins trace back to Ernest Thompson Seton, an author and artist who started a group called the “Woodcraft Indians” in 1902 to teach young white boys the knowledge and skills for being in the woods. (Seton’s parents were English and Scots.)

Charles Eastman (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In 1910, Seton, Daniel Carter Beard and Robert Baden-Powell started the Boy Scouts. Very early on they got support from Charles Eastman (Santee Dakota, English and French) a well known author and physician, who was born in Minnesota. Eastman worked as a physician on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota but sought other ways to improve the lives of Native Americans.

Eastman founded 32 Native American YMCA chapters and helped found the Boy Scouts of America, according to a story in Indian Country Today.

The Boy Scouts had several offshoots. One was called the Mic-O-Say Tribe, founded in 1925 by Harold Roe Bartle, a Scout executive for the St. Joseph Council in Missouri.

Bartle was non-Native, described as having “a 25-cigar-day habit,” according to the Indian Country Today story, How the Kansas City Chiefs got their name and the Boy Scout Tribe of Mic-O-Say.

The Mic-O-Say was a “tribe” of sorts, with a traveling dance group and its own “regalia, adornments and paint styles,” the article said. People in Bartle’s social circle called him by the nickname “Chief,

Harold Bartle (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Bartle served two terms as Kansas City mayor, and during that stint he worked hard to convince Lamar Hunt, owner of the Dallas Texans, to move his football team to Kansas City. Read the article for the full story, but it concludes:

The Kansas City Chiefs were not named for a Native American, but for Bartle’s namesake and his involvement with Mic-O-Say.

There are other versions of the story. An article in Mental Floss cites Hunt as considering names such as Mules, Royals, and Stars, but landed on Chiefs “because Native Americans had once lived in the area,” he said.

Comment: By that reasoning, every football team in America should be named “Chiefs.”

Wikipedia said the name “Chiefs” came from a fan contest to rename the team. But both Wikipedia and Mental Floss accounts also attribute the name “Chiefs” to the importance of Mayor Bartle in bringing the team to town and to his nickname “Chief.”

Post Script: The Tribe of the Mic-O-Say still exists in both St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri as an Honor Scout Organization. According to a brief summary on its website, the Tribe said: “The names and symbols of the two chapters of Mic-O-Say are now protected by copyright and service marks and are not allowed to be used by other organizations or outside these chapters.”

So … on one hand, the Boy Scouts in general, and the Tribe of the Mic-O-Say in particular, appropriated indigenous symbols and imagery. On the other hand, the Tribe of the Mic-O-Say finds it necessary to copyright their own names and symbols so no one else could use them? They apparently fail to see the irony.

Click on the links above for more details. Props again to Indian Country Today.

2 thoughts on “The Kansas City Chiefs name represents a form of cultural appropriation, but the backstory is more bizarre than you think

  1. “Comment: By that reasoning, every football team in America should be named “Chiefs.””

    The levity makes this story a little easier to take in. Thank you for your beautiful writing.


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