Who are you?
We are a small group of rugby fans, most of us long-running Exeter Chiefs fans including season ticket holders. We work with Indigenous individuals and groups including academics, authors and community representatives.
We connected on social media in June 2020 through our shared concern for some aspects of Exeter Chiefs’ branding and decided to join forces under the name “Exeter Chiefs for Change” to highlight the issue with the club and other fans. We run the campaign in our spare time on a voluntary basis and without any funding or other financial support.
Almost all of us are long-standing Exeter Chiefs fans, several of us are or have been season ticket holders, we’ve all been to lots of home and away games and we are all rugby fans. Almost all of us are from Devon although several of us live elsewhere now due to work and family commitments. You can follow us @exchiefs4change on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and find our petition at change.org/exeterchiefs.
What can I do to help?
Check out our Take Action page for lots of ideas for ways you can help. In short, the most effective thing you can do is to keep talking about the issues with the branding to friends, family, the club and anyone else – in rugby and beyond. Following us on social media and helping our accounts reach as many people as possible by liking, retweeting and commenting (Twitter), liking, saving, re-posting and commenting (Instagram) and liking, commenting and sharing (Facebook and LinkedIn) accelerates the rate at which the campaign grows and helps to make it impossible for the club to continue to ignore the issue.
About the issue
What are you campaigning for?
We are campaigning for Exeter Chiefs to drop the parts of their branding which use Indigenous peoples’ imagery. This includes the logo illustration of a generic Native American chief, the use of headdresses, the “Tomahawk chop” chant, and the other ways Indigenous themes are used by the club, for example the bar names around the ground which include the Pow Wow bar, Wigwam bar, Cheyenne Bar and so on.
What about the name?
We are not campaigning for a change to the name “Chiefs” – we don’t believe this needs to change because it is not specific to Indigenous peoples and has separate meanings away from that culture, including a history of being used to refer to the first team in rugby in the Westcountry. There is therefore not an issue with the name, but with the Native-style imagery used by the club alongside it.
What is the problem with the club’s branding?
Many many Indigenous peoples and organisations have asked all companies and sports clubs to stop using them as mascots and logos. Even images which are seemingly positive associations (brave warriors etc) are out-dated and one-dimensional stereotypes. Mascots and logos using images like this perpetuate these misleading and reductive stereotypes that erase the many vast distinctions between the hundreds of different nations (which are as varied as any other continent, like Europe).
Extensive research has shown that the use of mascots and images like this causes harm by eroding cultural identity and impacting mental health and well-being, particularly amongst Indigenous youth. This is a contributing factor to the causes of other severe issues impacting Indigenous communities, including Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and high suicide rates.
Portrayals like this contribute to Indigenous peoples’ loss of cultural identity by allowing others to control their image. They present an outdated stereotype which further cements the perception from many that they are historical or extinct people rather than a current, living, modern group. This undermines their representation and voice on other issues.
Many of the items appropriated carry great meaning in their true culture, for example the headdress/warbonnet is only used in some nations and awarded rarely, and only to those who have made certain achievements. It is inappropriate for even other people from these communities to use these items without them having been earned or bestowed upon them so their misuse in Western culture is greatly offensive.
What would you have instead?
We think this could be a great opportunity for the club to celebrate our own history! Take a look at our Drawing Board page for some fantastic mock ups of Dumnonii or Celtic inspired logos, showing how the club could #ChangeTheChief by using the ‘Chiefs’ name, but associating it with chiefs from Devon’s own rich history – share your designs on social media, tag us @ExChiefs4Change and use the hashtag #ChangeTheChief to add your ideas to the board! Of course clubs don’t have to use local connections – most don’t and that’s not our objection to the Native imagery – but it is a great opportunity to not only stop harming Indigenous peoples but to also celebrate and raise awareness of our own rich culture and promote some of the great things about Exeter and Devon to the wider world.
Has any of this actually come from Native Americans?
Yes! This is ALL based on the views and experiences of Indigenous peoples. Exeter Chiefs for Change is just trying to amplify their voices and point people towards the information and resources which are already out there. Please take some time to review our Indigenous Voices page where we have shared many examples of Indigenous individuals and groups addressing Exeter specifically, as well as the wider issues around Native mascots and logos.
We work closely with several Native people and have connected with many more individuals and groups of Indigenous peoples, from different tribes and nations, some based in the US and Canada and some now based in the UK. All of them have told us that all logos and mascots of this kind are harmful, offensive and should not be used. You can see resources from Indigenous peoples on our social media channels and watch a video of a panel discussion of the Exeter issue amongst Native Americans here.
There are many large long-running campaigns in the US from Indigenous peoples which make it clear that no logos or mascots of this kind are acceptable at any sports clubs or organisations. High profile sports teams such as the Washington NFL, Edmonton Elks and Cleveland Guardians have all renamed and ended their use of Indigenous imagery within the past two years, due to campaigns by Native-led organisations such as the NCAI, Not Your Mascot, Change The Mascot, Not In Our Honor, and Illuminatives, plus there are hundreds of campaigns by Native people and allies against specific clubs, schools, colleges and others with imagery like this.
What about the Native American people who say they are not offended?
Of course you are never going to get complete consensus from a group of people on something – there are hundreds of First Nations and tribes, and many people who claim connections or ancestry from distant genealogy links. Each of these people has had different experiences and has different opinions. This does not change the fact that all of the major representative groups within the Indigenous community have made it clear that they do not want their culture misappropriated in this way and it does not change the fact that the research has shown that harm is caused to the community, whether they are offended or not.
Haven’t Indigenous people got bigger things to worry about?
There are other very serious issues impacting Indigenous communities, including land rights, access to clean water, construction of oil pipes across their land, MMIWG (missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls), high suicide rates and many more. However, out-dated and inaccurate stereotypes as perpetuated by the use of mascots and logos are a contributing factor to all of these, for example through dehumanising, undermining representation, eroding accurate cultural identity and harming well-being and mental health. This is why it is so important that this issue is addressed and rectified.
How many Native Americans are in Exeter / UK to get offended or have even heard of rugby?!
There are Indigenous peoples who live in the UK and even in Devon! Additionally, rugby and the Premiership are gaining an increasing profile overseas including in the USA and Canada where games are regularly broadcast. Organisations such as Iroquois Roots Rugby have rugby programmes in Indigenous communities. But aside from all of this, we shouldn’t only not do offensive things when the person we are offending is watching. We know blackface is wrong and offensive at any time, not just when there is a black person present. Most importantly, the use of imagery like this causes proven harm to Indigenous people by perpetuating inaccurate and damaging stereotypes, regardless of where it is happening: it could be said that the fact that there are fewer Indigenous people in the UK means that these misleading stereotypes are more harmful because for many people they are their only exposure to this culture.
Hasn’t the club already dealt with this?
Exeter Chiefs held a board meeting in July 2020 to discuss the branding after pressure from the campaign and media. The club issued a statement following the meeting announcing that the ‘Big Chief’ mascot would be dropped: “The one aspect which the board felt could be regarded as disrespectful was the club’s mascot ‘Big Chief’ and as a mark of respect have decided to retire him”. However it decided to keep the rest of the branding, stating that: “The board took the view that the use of the Chiefs logo was in fact highly respectful.” It is not appropriate for the board, as white British people, to decide that their opinions ‘over-rule’ those of Indigenous peoples who are the ones whose culture it is.
We provided the club with a short briefing pack containing some of the Indigenous peoples voices calling for a change and the reasons and research showing why the imagery is problematic. The club stated: “Part of the club’s review has seen the club engage with its sponsors and key partners to seek their views – and they have also listened to the response of our supporters, the wider rugby community and certain sections from the Native American community, all of whom have provided us with detailed observations in letters, emails, social content and videos.”. We know that several individuals and groups from Indigenous peoples’ communities wrote to the club to offer to talk about the issue but none of their offers were taken up by the club. We therefore do not believe that the club spoke to any Indigenous peoples or other experts on this matter, or certainly not any that had contacted them with objections.
The issue therefore has not been dealt with and will not be dealt with until the club changes the branding sufficiently to resolve the concerns from Indigenous peoples and end the negative impacts.
The campaigns you reference are just about getting rid of mascots – Chiefs already did that?
‘Mascot’ is frequently used as shorthand for all names, logos and imagery by campaigns, research and media coverage. NCAI makes it clear that it refers to all of these aspects.
Exeter’s “Big Chief” mascot was only part of the problem – all of the Native-style imagery the club uses is harmful and offensive misappropriation. The logo is no different from the mascot – it presents a stereotypical caricature image wearing a headdress. If the club can acknowledge that one might be a problem it does not follow that the other is not.
Could the club work with Indigenous peoples to develop a logo they are happy with?
We would welcome the club seeking to talk to and work with Indigenous peoples. However we believe it is unlikely they would be able to find a nation that was willing to give agreement for their identity to be used. If they were to find a tribe whose appointed leadership agreed to permit their specific image to be used by the club (it would not be sufficient for individuals to permit it), this would still require a lot of significant changes – a new logo to make it culturally accurate, the end to headdresses (because of the meaning of these items and their appropriate use) and the end of the Tomahawk chop (as this has no roots in any Indigenous culture) and a change to most if not all of the bar names used around the ground (to specific aspects of that nation’s culture). Even then, it would still not be accepted by many Indigenous people and would not alleviate the criticism. It would therefore be an odd thing to pursue and spend a lot of money working on when you could rebrand to something from our own culture which ends the criticism altogether.
Are you calling the club / Exeter fans racists?
It is worth noting that an individual or an organisation can do both racist and non-racist things at the same time. The club does some brilliant work in the community and as noted in its statement has welcomed players and staff from many different backgrounds. The club is not racist in many ways, but its actions on this particular issue can be said to be racist. We know this is a strong word: a lot of people do not appreciate the broader definitions of the ways racism is manifested and so react viscerally to this statement. However it’s really important we focus on listening to the minorities with a lived experience of racism, rather than focusing on the emotional discomfort that we experience when our actions are described as racist.
We know that neither the club nor the fans had any racist intent when they began using the logo, chants, headdresses etc and that they were all done with seemingly positive associations. However, now we know that the Indigenous peoples we believed that we were respectfully honouring do not feel honoured, our intention is irrelevant and does not negate the harm caused by this type of misrepresentation of Native peoples and culture.
This idea that a group of non-Indigenous people can overrule the evidence and experience of Indigenous people (who are the only ones who have the right to be offended) is also a form of racism. Exeter Chiefs may do great work in other areas, but a racist action is a racist action, regardless of who is doing it, what their intent is and all the times they don’t do racist things.
Excuses and whatabouts
How can it be negative when it is about honour and respect? It’s done in a positive way!
We know that the original intent of the branding was because of positive associations with bravery, strength and so on. However, Indigenous peoples have said that they don’t want their image reduced down to this outdated stereotype and that being portrayed as warriors, warlike or savages is not positive for them. In addition, research has shown mascots and logos using outdated stereotypes like this are causing harm to Indigenous peoples’ well-being and representation. Therefore even if the intent was positive, the impact is unfortunately negative. The best way to respect Indigenous peoples is to listen to them and respect their wishes. The best way to honour them is to learn about their cultures, and recognise that they are living current people.
How do we draw the line between “cultural appreciation” and “Cultural appropriation”? Surely everyone uses things from other cultures?
Misappropriation is when aspects of a culture are taken, often by a dominant part of society, from those with a history of being oppressed, and used in a way that does not respect the original culture. The elements are often profited from with no benefit to the original culture and no understanding of the broader context.
In the case of mascots and logos of Indigenous peoples, they are a reductive cartoon-like image that amalgamates misunderstood aspects of several different nations and inaccurate stereotypes into one caricature that causes proven harm to well-being and offence. No relationship with, or true understanding of, the original culture is present and the attempts of many Indigenous peoples to reclaim their culture or even have a discussion about its use are ignored.
It is also worth noting the historical context here: Indigenous peoples live with the intergenerational trauma of surviving the attempted genocide by European settlers in which their ancestors were murdered and their land and resources were stolen. Native American children were removed from their homes and forcibly assimilated in to Western society through the “residential school” program set up by the US and Canadian governments, where children were abused and even killed for practicing their culture. The last of these schools closed in 1996 just three years before Exeter adopted its current branding. A European club profiting from Native American culture that Native people themselves have historically banned from practicing does not demonstrate appreciation.
There are many ways that people can show appreciation for Indigenous culture, for example by reading books by Indigenous authors, listening to music by Indigenous musicians, buying art by Indigenous artists or watching films and TV shows made by Indigenous people. There are aspects of Native American culture that we have been invited to share and appreciate and there are elements that we must respect are sacred and not for commercial consumption.
It’s an educational tool – it got kids asking and learning about Native Americans. Without that they will be forgotten!
Indigenous peoples have said that they do not want to be promoted in this way. If the club was so keen to use it as an educational tool, it would have reached out to Indigenous organisations or made any effort to share information about that culture, but they haven’t, either in the last two decades or even now the issue has been made very clear to them. Children have lots of other ways of learning accurate information about Indigenous peoples rather than learning about out-dated and offensive information about them, and this is always better if it can come from people who are part of that community. Many organisations have resources for children to learn about Native American people and culture, for example this lesson plan shared by IllumiNative for Indigenous Peoples Day, this list of children’s books by Indigenous authors or TV series like Molly of Denali or the upcoming Spirit Rangers.
It’s also counter-productive to use Exeter’s branding as an awareness tool when it is giving such wrong information and perpetuating outdated racial stereotypes with no basis in reality. Particularly in the UK where most people have very little exposure, if any, to any real Indigenous peoples or their culture, they are less likely to realise how inaccurate the image Exeter Chiefs puts across is.
Most fans are happy with it so why are you pursuing this?
It is not about fans being ok with it or not: it is not up to (mostly) white (mostly) British people to decide whether something is offensive and harmful to Indigenous peoples. The only opinions which matter on this issue, are those of the Indigenous peoples affected, many of whom are stating that it is harmful and offensive and they want it to stop.
The club can’t afford to rebrand
Rebrands, updates and refreshes are a normal part of any business investment and could be spread over several years. We know these things don’t happen overnight and would completely understand an announcement now that the imagery will be retired in a season or two, perhaps to fit in with the next shirt renewal.
We expect local firms and designers would be thrilled to work on something as significant as this and we’ve already seen some great suggestions and very professional designs from others. In addition, new branding would generate positive publicity for the club and increase merchandise sales as fans are keen to buy new items.
Further delaying what will be an inevitable change means that it will become more urgent, as governing bodies and the public lose patience with cultural misappropriation. Recent research in the US has shown that many sports fans are keen to see an end to the misappropriation of Native culture and Exeter’s refusal to change runs the risk of alienating potential new fans.
It could also cost the club income from potential sponsors who have seen the damage the association with brands with similar branding have had in the US and are reluctant to be connected to the club or broadcast the matches (particularly to US broadcasters). Notably, Exeter Chiefs failed to secure a new main shirt sponsor at the start of the 2021/22 season, before it was revealed that one of Tony Rowe’s own companies had replaced the previous partner. Some have speculated whether this is due to the association with the branding.
Why haven’t you complained in the last 20 years Exeter Chiefs have been using this branding?
Similar campaigns have been running in the USA for decades (NCAI launched their first campaign in 1968) so it is not a new issue. However there has been a lot less awareness of Indigenous peoples’ struggles here in the UK so for many of us it is something we have only become aware of over the last few years. We understand it has been raised with the club as far back as the early 00s and we have evidence it has been raised by the New York Times in 2018, by Dr Stephanie Pratt (Crow Creek Dakota living in Devon) in an interview by Devon Live in 2016, by historian Dr Rachel Hermann in 2016, as covered by several media titles including the BBC. Fan forums, blogs and podcasts have also discussed the issue several times over the years as well as on social media.
What about bears / sharks / tigers etc?
Equating the rights of Indigenous people to animals is offensive and illustrates one of the harmful effects of using living people as mascots: some people view them as equivalent to other mascots, which are mostly animals.
What about Saracens?
We are Exeter Chiefs fans so are focussing on getting our own house in order in response to the many long-running calls from Indigenous peoples to end all uses of their culture in mascots and logos like this. Other issues would require input from members of that community.
What about all the other issues in the world? Aren’t there bigger things to worry about?
We are Exeter Chiefs / rugby fans so we are focussing on our club / sport as part of the ethos of speaking up on and addressing issues in your own community that can be easily rectified, but it is possible to be concerned about several things at once! There is not a hierarchy of issues which has to be addressed in a specific order. To the people impacted by this, all of these mascots and logos inter-relate to all of the other issues their communities are facing as they undermine their perception by others and contribute to issues with well-being and mental health.
Isn’t this just woke snowflakes looking for something to be offended about?
This isn’t about whether we are offended or not, it is about the Indigenous peoples affected, who are asking us to stop misusing their culture in this way. Our campaign was created to amplify the Indigenous voices for change, and if sticking up for a minority who have been oppressed for generations and still face a myriad of discriminations and issues is ‘wokeness’ then it is a label we will proudly wear.
Isn’t this cancel culture?
We are not cancelling anything other than the use of branding which causes proven harm to an oppressed minority group who have asked for it to stop being used. We still support the club but we want them to deal with this properly.
I’m tired of being told everything is offensive these days – where does it end?!
It will ‘end’ when racism, discrimination and inequality of all kinds end!
We know that it can be frustrating to be told that things we have said, done or enjoyed for years are no longer appropriate. It can be hard to understand what the problem is when we are not part of the communities who experience the negative impacts.
Change is something that most of us don’t like to deal with, particularly when we do not directly benefit from the change or feel that it is taking away something we enjoy. But regardless of how change makes us feel, if our actions harm others then changing them is the right thing to do.
There is nothing wrong with changing your mind on something, there are things that were once considered normal that are now unacceptable. As jarring as it can sometimes feel, we must accept that the world moves on. Listening to, and learning from different groups and cultures is an important part of progress and building a fairer society that benefits everyone – this is how women got the vote and slavery was abolished!
It’s very easy for those of us without a lived experience of racism or prejudice to tire of campaigns and dismiss them as unimportant. However, for the Indigenous peoples living with the harmful effects of the stereotypes perpetuated by sports teams, this isn’t just another annoying thing changing for the sake of it but something that may change how they are perceived and treated, improving life for them and their community.
Why are you criticising the club if you are fans? You can’t be real fans.
Those of us who are Exeter fans have been for many years – we go to matches when we can and some of us are season ticket holders. We are immensely proud of what our club has achieved on the pitch and with its work in the local community. But we do not feel proud of the way that the club has handled this issue and we believe that as fans it is important that we call it out.
The message from Indigenous peoples is clear that using their culture in this way is wrong and harmful, and we don’t believe you should ignore or make excuses for things that are wrong and harmful just because it is someone you like or are close to who is doing it.
We want Exeter Chiefs to deal with this issue properly so that it stops tarnishing them and they can get back to being the best both on and off the pitch and so we can all get back to just enjoying the rugby.