Dirty Kanza
To many, the Dirty Kanza is one more example of the way Native-derived names often ignore the voices of the very people they purport to honor. (Photo: Dustin Michelson/Emporia Gazette)

Why the Name of a Major Gravel Event Is Being Changed

On the Dirty Kanza and the cycling world's reckoning with a racist, exclusionary past

Dirty Kanza

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Jim Cummins was not only the founder of one of the world’s best-known gravel-bike races, the Dirty Kanza, but he was also its public face—the man at the finish line in Emporia, Kansas, waiting to give each returning rider a hero’s welcome after 200 miles of rutted roads, headwinds, and tire-sucking mud. That is, until June 17, when Cummins posted a video on his personal Facebook page calling the shooting of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man who was killed by an Atlanta police officer on June 12 when Brooks was found sleeping in a Wendy’s drive through lane, “justified” and inviting anyone who disagreed to “unfriend” him. Many followers did so, and even more expressed hurt and anger about the post on social media. 

Cummins’s reach in the bike world is considerable. The race he dreamed up in 2006 as a solo, self-supported tour of Kansas’s rolling Flint Hills has since grown into a marquee event attracting not only top professional racers but amateur riders from all over the country—the closest thing the burgeoning gravel scene had to a World Tour. Last year the Dirty Kanza attracted thousands of riders to its 25-, 50-, 100-, 200-, and 350-mile events. The race put Emporia on the map as a top U.S. cycling destination, a new and unexpected reputation the 24,000-person town was happy to adopt. 

In 2018, Life Time, a national chain of races and fitness companies, bought the once scrappy gravel grinder and kept Cummins on as its “chief gravel officer.” Until that post went up. Within 24 hours, Life Time had “parted ways” with Cummins, according to the senior vice president Kimo Seymour. The company issued a statement describing his Facebook comments as “inappropriate and insensitive,” and clarified its mission of making gravel racing “a more inclusive and progressive place where all feel welcome and represented.”

Cummins declined an interview, but in a statement shared with Road Bike Action, he apologized, writing, “I chose my words poorly” and “[I] hope that, some day, I can help to heal the wounds that I have caused.” But his words landed during a summer marked by civil rights protests and in a cycling world grappling with a historical lack of inclusivity, particularly for Black and Indigenous riders. 

His dismissal also reignited another long-simmering, racially charged controversy surrounding the Dirty Kanza. 

Race director LeLan Dains has a long history with both this region of Kansas and the race. An Emporia local, he first competed in the 200-miler in 2008 and joined the four-person staff five years later. Then someone approached the event team about the problematic nature of the name of the race itself, which some argue is a racist slur against the Kaw people native to the land on which the race is held. Translated as the “people of the south wind,” the Kaw were given the name “Kanza,” or “Kansa,” by early French traders and other European settlers. But it’s the pairing of “dirty” with the tribal name that many argue turns the race’s title into a historical racist stereotype. 

Dains says that there were no ill intentions behind the name of the race. “We named it ‘dirty’ for the gravel roads and the dirt you get on your legs and body when you ride them,” he says, “and ‘Kanza’ for the state, which gets its name from the Kaw tribe.” 

Still, over the years, Dains says members of the organization made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the Kaw Nation’s leadership for their thoughts on the name. 

In 2019, Cummins was finally able to meet with Lynn Williams, chair of the Kaw Nation Tribal Council. The two convened at Kaw Nation headquarters in Kaw City, Oklahoma, on February 26 of that year and ultimately agreed that the name would stay as is. Seymour says, “The last time we spoke, Williams said the Kaw Nation took no offense to the name.” (Williams did not respond to requests for comment.)

But continuing criticism raised the question of whether Williams’s decision accurately reflected her community’s feelings as a whole. In fact, according to reporting by Bicycling, a few months before he met with Williams, Cummins was forwarded an email on November 9, 2018, “signed by 45 members of the Kaw Nation, along with academics, advocates, and allies” saying that “the name was offensive to many people in or associated with the Kaw Nation,” James Stout wrote for Bicycling. (Dains says he’s not “personally aware of a petition that potentially contained 45 members of the Kaw Nation.”)

In April of 2020, Christina Torres, the founder of Cyclista Zine, an independent publication focused on “sharing knowledge and the stories of BIPOC and FTW [femme, trans, and women] folx in cycling,” launched a petition urging the race to change its name. The issue felt personal to Torres, as an avid cyclist and a Kawaiisu Shoshone-Paiute descendant of the Tejon Indian Tribe, she told Cyclocross Magazine. “The Kaw Nation of Kansas, now of Oklahoma, has survived adversity and today is a federally recognized, self-governing tribe seeking to recover its cultural heritage and land,” Torres wrote. “To preface the Kanza people with ‘dirty’ shows a disconnect of America’s legacy of anti-Indigenous violence.”

The petition drew more than 1,200 signatures—many from Indigenous people across the country—and the attention of the team in Emporia. In response, Cummins issued an open letter in April 2020 revealing his 2019 meeting with Williams and said that the race name would not be changing. The statement also clarified his intentions behind choosing its name. Though Williams’s signature appears on the open letter, her voice seemed to be absent.

At the time, the Dirty Kanza wasn’t the only gravel event confronting the impact its name might have on Indigenous groups. In late 2019, Bobby Wintle, founder of the Land Run 100 gravel race in Oklahoma, announced that he had changed the race’s official title to Mid South. Wintle told VeloNews that when he first named the race, he was “unaware that the name held negative connotations for many still living today.” The Oklahoma land rush was named as such because a federal order, effective April 22, 1889, allowed 50,000 white settlers to seize two million acres of Indigenous land. (The land run of 1893 saw settlers take a further six million acres.) “Once our small crew and myself realized that the correlation with the original land run of 1889 was offensive to others, we had to make a change,” Wintle said in a release.

To many, the Dirty Kanza was one more example of the way Native-derived names often ignore the voices of the very people they purport to honor, raising the question of who gets to grant permission to use those names. “One person from the Native community saying, ‘I think it’s OK’ is no different than someone saying, ‘That’s not racist, because I have a Black friend,’” says artist, gravel rider, and Indigenous activist Gregg Deal. “You’re talking about an entire community of people, which means there are different ideas and schools of thought.”

Deal bemoans the fact that Indigenous people aren’t given agency or authority in matters so deeply tied to their culture. “People will tell you straight to your face, ‘It’s not offensive, that’s not the intent,’” he says. “Most Americans in that school of thought feel like they get to decide what’s offensive, what’s not offensive, and what’s an honor, what’s not an honor. But that can’t exist without a true dialogue or relationship of some kind.” 

That dialogue is finally being attempted on more of a national scale. Just this week, the NFL’s Washington, D.C., team announced plans for a new name and mascot to replace its long-protested racist one, California’s Squaw Valley Ski Resort reportedly began its own search for a less offensive moniker, and Yeti Cycles announced they’d stop using the word “tribe” in their marketing.

Torres declined an interview, and while she didn’t provide her reasons, the naming saga had become heated and sometimes personal. Once Cummins issued his open letter, many thought the issue was settled: the Kaw Nation had granted an ostensible stamp of approval on the race name. This prompted a fair amount of online backlash to the petition. Commenters unleashed their usual gripes about cancel culture, some of which spilled over into personal criticism of Torres. “Stop looking for ways to be offended!” read one of the tamer responses on Instagram. 

And then came Cummins’s June 19 Facebook post, which renewed the push to change the race’s name. Activists began a second petition. Titled #NameTheChange, DK, the petition is a “campaign to end the use of the slur ‘dirty Kanza’ as the event name of DIRTY KANZA (DK) in Emporia, KS.” The authors have decided to remain anonymous but are described as a “united collective of Indigenous advocates, cyclists, people of faith, educators, elders, youth, local Kansas residents and builders of a just world.” I reached out to the authors through an intermediary, and they declined to comment. As of today, the petition has been signed by more than 6,500 people. 

This time, the team in Emporia was ready to listen. In a June 22 Instagram post, race organizers committed to changing the name. Dains confirmed over the phone on June 24 that they were in the process of landing on a new race title, which they would announce in “eight to ten weeks.” He added that the petition had accelerated the decision, but that the name-change conversation had remained open for some time. 

“We know now more than ever that words have meaning,” Dains says. “At the time we made that announcement in unison with the Kaw Nation, we felt we were right in continuing with the name. But at the end of the day, we can be legally ‘right,’ or we can be kind. We’re going to choose to be kind and change the name.” 

For many, that change can’t come fast enough. Support for the petition and further demands—including more acknowledgement of the Indigenous groups who have long opposed the name and have had their complaints ignored—continues to grow after the announcement, even among past riders and winners. Amity Rockwell, the winner of last year’s race, posted a list of requests for the organizers, including a name change and a BIPOC athlete-sponsorship program. 

The decision to change the name is a “good move, in good faith,” says Deal, adding that it’s one “that won’t change the hard, grueling nature of the race.” It’s a move toward better accountability to the Indigenous communities whose names and images have long been appropriated to represent the outdoors. But it’s not the finish line. That will come into sight, Deal says, when Indigenous people are given true agency over the use of their names and symbols, and when bike races create more opportunities and accessibility for riders of color. 

Lead Photo: Dustin Michelson/Emporia Gazette