Meet The Chiefs

By Guest Contributor Caleb Borchers, cross-posted from Uni Watch

Over the last few months, the issue of Native American imagery in US sports has been a hot topic in the Uni Watch community. Sadly, that discussion often devolves into heavily stereotyped positions and name calling. I often feel for writers like Paul, because his fascinating and nuanced position quickly is flattened out. What follows is my attempt to add another data point or scenario to the discussion.

Some Uni Watch readers may recognize my name in connection with rugby, particularly New Zealand rugby. That nation and sport have a special place in my heart. New Zealand is a nation with a fascinating history when it comes to the indigenous people, the Maori. The relationship between European settlers and the Maori people has often been sad and tragic. Still, there are ways in which New Zealand has better handled the issue than other places. A treaty between settlers and Maori chiefs, the Treaty of Waitangi, serves as the founding document of the country.

The treaty is still law and a tribunal investigates failures to follow through on the treaty. About one in every eight people in New Zealand are Maori and the Maori population is growing at a faster rate than the European population. When you compare to nations like Australia (2.5% indigenous population) and the USA (1%) clearly the Maori have flourished proportionally. Many government buildings have English and Maori signage. “God Defend New Zealand” is sung first in Maori. The haka is a point of national pride in the sporting world. These are small things and Maori people still have many legitimate complaints about their treatment historically and currently. Still, there is a level of awareness and respect in New Zealand’s culture that most Americans do not have about the USA’s indigenous peoples.

In this context, we turn our attention to the Chiefs, a professional franchise that began in 1995. Their logo and colors are largely derivative of those of the Waikato region in which they are based. The Chiefs represent much of the middle of the northern island of New Zealand, including areas, such as Rotorua, which are renowned for their connection to Maori culture and populations. The logo shows a Maori chief carrying the traditional kotiate weapon. The kotiate was used in warfare, but also plays a role in speech giving. The logo clearly plays on stereotypes of the Maori people and their violent past.

In 2011, the Chiefs hired a new coaching staff, led by coach Dave Rennie. One thing that the new staff did was try to connect the team with the Maori population, culture, and history that the team’s logo invokes. These efforts included using Maori names and philosophical concepts as a framework for their various game plan elements, as well as using tribal names in their team organization. The fact that many of the Chiefs players are Maori (or at least qualify for participation with the Maori All Blacks) helps.

As the 2012 season went on, the team began to include more Maori elements in their uniforms and identity. Their early season jersey had added sublimated Maori designs by the end of the year. They continued to include Maori cultural performers at the games. Most unexpected was the Chiefs’ development of their very own haka. While many schools have their own hakas, and the national teams have their own, this was a first at Super Rugby level. The team quietly created and practiced the haka and debuted it only after winning the 2012 Super Rugby final. For good measure Hika Elliot, who led the haka, brought along props (that’s him on the far right). Chiefs players have created a broader relationship with the cultural group who aided them in the haka creation and some players attend haka competitions to support the group, just like they attend Chief games.

Already in 2013 the Chiefs are continuing their connection to Maori culture. As part of their preseason training they followed a path connected to a historic Maori migration. The trip included not only exercise, but some time to connect with traditional Maori communities.

The way the Chiefs connect with the Maori is fascinating in the discussion of the use of Native American imagery. On the one hand, the issues still don’t go away. The Chiefs still are profiting from imagery and traditions they don’t own. In many ways they continue to perpetuate an image of Maori culture connected to violence and savagery. One could also challenge how appropriate it is to use traditional cultural elements in commercial contexts. Should they really pay Maori performers to come to games, like some sort of indigenous cheerleaders? Should the haka be used in a way similar to the Lakers Girls dance team?

On the other side, the amount of respect, time, and energy that is put into the Chiefs connection to the Maori culture is remarkable. Someone has clearly spent time studying Maori culture, philosophy, and values. The haka and cross country training trek are two gestures that took incredible forethought and time. Given how jealous most coaches are of every moment of practice time, Rennie has shown that he at least appreciates team culture and bonding better than most. Whatever the appropriateness of the connection between sport and the Maori, one cannot blame the Chiefs for doing it in a way that is neither cheap nor easy. Some of these initiatives are also being fueled by Maori players, like former New Zealand Maori captain and Chief co-captain Liam Messam.

What if this sort of concern was shown in American contexts? More than just some guy in a headdress throwing a javelin into the turf, what if Florida State required all student athletes to take a course in Seminole culture? What if the Cleveland Indians regularly were involved with Erie tribe youths? Would it be appropriate for the Blackhawks to have an Illini song performed during games? Is American culture too divorced from that of Native American tradition to make this possible?

The Chiefs story over the last two years is evidence that use of indigenous peoples’ imagery and names does not have to be crass, cheap, and easy. Some issues remain, but it seems far more palatable than what American sports fans see.

  • Sarah

    “Some of these initiatives are also being fueled by Maori players, like former New Zealand Maori captain and Chief co-captain Liam Messam.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/kealanicook Kealani Cook

      Bit late here, but I meant what was the distinction you were making with “at least qualify for participation”

  • http://twitter.com/mixxie143 Maxine

    Cosign. These American sports teams would be a LOT less problematic if they actually acknowledged and made the effort to explore the cultures they purport to represent, instead of just parading the stereotypes around.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kealanicook Kealani Cook

    Also, it’s great seeing Pacific Islander stuff, thanks for writing this.