Exeter Chiefs for Change: The Exeter Chiefs Official “tomahawk chop”
Exeter Chiefs rugby
An acceptable face of racism in the United Kingdom?

As the Exeter Chiefs rugby club celebrates two championships in as many weeks–the European championships and Premiership rugby championships–fans around the world celebrate the unlikely success of their team.

Just ten short years ago, the Chiefs joined Premiership rugby, the top ranks of rugby, and now they are victors over all. Sadly, not everyone feels the joy of Exeter’s triumph. Many Native Americans in the UK feel dismay and disgust for the club who claims to honour them.

In June, as the country reflected on it’s past with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a group of Exeter fans called on their team to replace their Native American-themed mascot, logo and branding. Other teams, like the Washington R*dskins American football team, made this choice and these fans wanted Exeter to follow suit. They formed a group, called Exeter Chiefs for Change, and worked with Native Americans in the UK to better understand this issue and make the case for change.

When more than 4,000 supporters signed a petition by Exeter Chiefs for Change, the Exeter Chiefs Board considered the request. The Board chose to retire their mascot, “Big Chief”, but decided that their “logo was in fact highly respectful” and refused to change their logo and branding. The Board noted that they spoke with players and supporters around the world to reach their decision, but they failed to speak with those directly affected: Native Americans.

The Exeter Chiefs perpetuate a long, dark history of racism against Native Americans. They also raise questions about their own identity. As Philip Deloria argued in his book Playing Indian, early settlers to what became the United States used Native mascots to affirm their identity as being not British, but something different. Native Americans represented a sense of freedom and idyllicism that the colonists longed for in their new lives in their new home.

Native American mascots have also affirmed a sense of “progress” by colonists, celebrating their efforts to erase the rich and complex histories and identities of Native Americans. Mascots frame Native Americans as peoples of the past, symbols of a bygone era consumed in the onward march toward the Americans’ “manifest destiny” to settle and “civilise” the land they occupied. This march to progress saw many Native Americans removed from their Homelands and forced to assimilate into the lives of their oppressors.

tonyperry
Tony Perry is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and the author of Chula the Fox, an award-winning historical fiction book about Chickasaw life in the early 1700s. Courtesy photo

Native Americans bear the cultural trauma of the past today, and they continue to fight for their identity as citizens of sovereign nations. Native peoples continue this fight to protect their lands, as seen at Standing Rock when oil companies fought to create a pipeline that threatened water supplies.

Native peoples fight to protect their communities, with Native women and girls on reservations ten times more likely to be killed than other Americans. Others continue to fight for their very sovereignty, as seen by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe whose ancestors saved the Pilgrims who occupied their lands 400 years ago.

The Chiefs’ decision to keep their logo and branding is anything but the “respect” they claim to give. Relegating Native Americans to a stereotyped mascot or a logo denigrates our past and ignores our struggles and triumphs today. The Exeter Chiefs cannot say they did not know better; they made a conscious choice to offend and oppress. Their logo remains, the “tomahawk chops” continue and their supporters still band together as a “tribe”.

Like the early colonial settlers, they long for an idyllic past framed by oppressors and dream of a future that depends on Native Americans being peoples of the past. Like the early colonial settlers, the Chief’s success is based on rejecting their own identity and community.

They are unaware of, or worse, disinterested in the richness of their own local history. Rather than celebrating the civilisations that flourished in their region long before the Romans arrived, they prefer to “honor” peoples they do not know or understand.

We Native Americans are not simply peoples of the past, and our lives–past and present–matter. We have survived, against the odds, and we thrive. We embrace our histories, our languages and our cultures. We fight to right the wrongs inflicted against us and improve the lives of our peoples.

Some of us are also British, members of a multicultural society that recognises the diversity of its peoples. Yet, as a British citizen and a Native American, it is jarring to see a society that classifies as hate speech efforts to caricature the identities of other people of colour but allows this to continue for Native Americans. It is a gaping hole in in the fight for racial justice and equality.

The hole was there for all to see in this televised match, as some players at the match knelt in a call for #rugbyagainstracism and then threw their “tomahawk chops” when the Chiefs scored a try.

Exeter Chiefs
Fans of the Exeter Chiefs in faux headdresses. Photo: Alasdair Massie

As supporters celebrate their victories, many still spew hateful bile in their triumph that shows a complete disregard for the people they so steadfastly claim to “honor.” They do not see that, by their triumph, they cast light upon a dark hole in British society and in rugby in particular.

This is not just a British issue. Premiership rugby seeks to expand its presence in the United States, and NBC Sports broadcasted several of their matches this year. This, despite the logo, the chops and everything that comes with it.

We can do better, and we must.


Tony Perry is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation living in England. He is also author of Chula the Fox, an award-winning historical fiction book about Chickasaw life in the early 1700s.