TAMPA — Since the start of the Kansas City Chiefs season, Rhonda LeValdo of the Acoma Tribe has protested outside the team’s stadium. She has spent days standing alongside members of Not In Our Honor, a collective against the use of Native American mascots, logos, and imagery. So when Super Bowl 55 brought the Chiefs to Tampa, LeValdo drove nearly 20 hours to Raymond James Stadium.
About two dozen activists stood alongside her on the sidewalk in Sunday’s early evening light, with the stadium looming behind them as pregame festivities ramped up. They held signs and called out to passing fans over the thump of stadium music, hoping to call attention to the harm of using Native American names and imagery that perpetuate stereotypes.
As fans filed by, some hurled expletives at the protesters. One asked, “What racism?”
”We’re just saying if you’re not going to honor us, don’t use the arrowhead,” yelled one protestor. “You’re mocking our people!”
Local activist group FIREE, which stands for Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality, joined LeValdo and the others.
”Why do we have to fight for our own dignity?” said Stuart Flores of St. Petersburg, who had been praying in past weeks that the Chiefs would lose their chance to compete in Tampa.
”We’re not mascots,” Flores said, adding that “there is no honor” in being used as a mascot, particularly as reservations are underfunded and under-resourced, some with no running water and electricity. The pandemic has only exacerbated the health disparities.
Sherana Becenti, a member of the Diné, also known as the Navajo Nation, wore a shirt that read “Strong Resilient Indigenous.” She toted a sign with an arrowhead, overlaid with the word “Nope.”
She has ramped up her involvement with Not in Our Honor in the past year, she said, attending Sunday protests at Kansas City home games. As she stood outside Raymond James, the group was protesting back in Kansas City as well. The collective has put up billboards amplifying their calls for a name change.
“In 2021, it’s sad,” the 34-year-old said. “It’s time that they do the right thing.”
As one of the only indigenous teachers at her school, Becenti recalled a student who thought Native Americans only existed in the past.
”We’re still here and we’re gonna fight until we get respect,” Becenti said.
After an hour of protests and a handful of exchanges between protesters and fans, an intense exchange broke out. A Chiefs fan rolled up his left sleeve, revealing a tattoo of the Chiefs’ former mascot wearing a headdress. This was his sports culture, he said.
”You’re mocking our culture when we were murdered for it,” Alyssa Gallegos yelled into a microphone as the fan argued the team was bringing Native communities millions of dollars.
Protestors bristled at that retort. Money is going towards team staff and corporations, they argue, not into the hands of Native American communities.
“It just makes me feel like now more than ever, re-education is really, really important,” Gallegos told the Tampa Bay Times after the exchange. “I try my very best not to let the anger get ahold of me because to me it seems so simple.”
Gallegos, 29, of St. Petersburg is also a member of the Diné and said she’s reconnecting with her culture. She wore a shirt with a bloody red handprint in the center of a circle divided into black, white, yellow and red quarters. Outside the circle read “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.”
As a chilly evening came, she wrapped herself in a red, green and yellow blanket. And when fewer fans trickled through the intersection, the group posed for a photo with their signs.
LeValdo and other activists said change is overdue.
“We’re not seen as human beings. We’re seen as characters,” LeValdo said, but added: “We’re not going away.”
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