Exeter Chiefs For Change | Voices of Change

Here at What Can We Do? we strive to promote a better and fairer world through civic engagement, and that is why we launched the Voices of Change guest blog series.

We want to amplify the voices of a variety of different charities, community groups and individuals from home and abroad. While highlighting how COVID-19 has impacted them, how kindness plays a role in what they do, how people can get involved to support them and what the ideal future looks like.

Our special guest today is Laura Burrows from Exeter Chiefs For Change, discussing their campaign to change the 'misappropriation of indigenous people's imagery' and branding of the Exeter Chiefs' rugby club.

Tell us about yourself and your group

We are Exeter Chiefs For Change (EC4C): a group of rugby fans (led by Exeter Chiefs supporters) who connected on social media over a shared concern about Exeter Chiefs' imagery and branding.

When rugby union turned professional back in the 1990s many teams were looking for a marketing gimmick. Having been known colloquially as the “chiefs" (a term used in Devon to describe the ‘first 15” in a team) and likely inspired by the commercial success of many American sports brands, Exeter settled on a Native American inspired brand and a logo depicting a stereotypical “chief". Over the years, and especially since the team's promotion to the rugby premiership back in 2010, Exeter Chiefs adopted many of the branding elements associated with teams such as the Washington NFL team, Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Braves. Fans attend games wearing headdresses and “war paint", they sing along to the “tomahawk chop" and buy drinks at the “Pow Wow Bar".

Exeter Chiefs are now one of the top teams in the rugby premiership in England. While it's clear that no harm was intended when the club adopted its “Chiefs" brand back in 1999, we now know that the branding is inappropriate. EC4C are campaigning for the club to end its misappropriation of Indigenous peoples’ imagery.

Why are you doing what you're doing? Why has it come up now?

Indigenous peoples have been very vocal for a very long time that they are not our mascots. Their culture isn't a costume and race-based branding such as Exeter Chiefs' perpetuates harmful stereotypes of Native Americans. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has been campaigning since 1968 to address these stereotypes and now organisations such as IllumiNative are calling for a broader representation of Indigenous peoples in the media and an end to all Native mascots.

Some aspects of the Exeter Chiefs branding are especially offensive: according to research by IllumiNative, 70% of Native people are offended by the wearing of headdresses by sports fans, 65% are offended by the use of the "tomahawk chop" and 65% of Native youth are highly opposed to Native American mascots.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has thrust the issue of systemic racism in to the spotlight and many companies are finally beginning to review sponsorship deals in an effort to be more socially conscious. In July 2020, the Washington NFL team announced that they would be retiring their “R**skins" brand after FedEx threatened to drop sponsorship if the name was not dropped and Nike removed the team’s merchandise from their online store.

As teams such as Washington NFL, Kansas City Chiefs and other organisations begin to make changes to their branding, we at EC4C don't want the club we love to be left behind on the wrong side of history. Sport is, and always has been, a vehicle for social justice, as we've been reminded of after the incredible statement made by the Milwaukee Bucks in their decision not to play vs Orlando Magic following the shooting of Jacob Blake in their home state of Wisconsin. With the rugby premiership's own “Rugby Against Racism" campaign in place, Exeter Chiefs’ branding is increasingly shameful.

Exeter Rugby Club has been addressed several times by media, by academics and by Indigenous peoples asking the club to review its misuse of Indigenous peoples' imagery. The club's default response had been “no comment" until July 2020 when their board met to discuss their branding after our petition obtained thousands of signatures and the campaign garnered national attention. Disappointingly, the club determined that their branding and logo was “highly respectful" and decided to retain the imagery, despite us providing extensive evidence that this was not the case. The one element that the club agreed to drop was the game day mascot “Big Chief". Our campaign aims to continue to amplify the Indigenous voices for change in the hope that Exeter Chiefs will eventually listen and retire its current logo and all associated branding.

Why is it important?

There is research, especially that of Dr Stephanie Fryberg (Tulalip), that demonstrates that Native mascots are harmful to Indigenous peoples, particularly Indigenous youth. Dr Fryberg's research indicates that many of the issues that Native people face are connected to how they're represented. In 2005 the American Psychological Association called for the retirement of all American Indian mascots stating that their use enforced negative stereotypes of Native Americans and undermined how Native Americans themselves wanted to be portrayed.

A common argument by supporters of Exeter Chiefs' Native-inspired brand is that it “honours" Indigenous peoples, despite the overwhelming evidence that many Indigenous peoples do not feel honoured by the misuse of their imagery and culture. It’s important to note that Devon is a majority white region and systemic racism is very much at play: The Mayflower, a ship that transported some of the first settlers from Europe, set sail 400 years ago from Plymouth, Devon, and its passengers ultimately ended up committing genocide against Native American people. By choosing to continue with their current branding, Exeter Chiefs are continuing to benefit from our colonial past while the peoples who suffered at the hands of our ancestors continue to be ignored. This is not an honour.

Tell us about the role of kindness in your work

First of all, everyone in the EC4C team is incredibly kind! It's easy to get burned out reading so many negative comments from people who oppose what we're doing but our team is so great at reminding each other to take some time out for self-care.

Many people have contacted us with ideas, resources and contacts to support us with our campaign and we've connected with Indigenous groups and individuals who have selflessly given their time and emotional labour to further the cause. Melanie from Iroquois Roots Rugby wrote an incredibly heartfelt letter to Exeter Chiefs and a panel of six Native Americans living in the UK and US took part in an extensive Q&A session discussing the club's branding.

Tweed at Native Spirit Festival has also given us some incredible guidance and curated a list of resources for our campaign which she made available on the Native Spirit website.

Most importantly, we've been contacted by people who, thanks to our campaign, have for the first time realised how problematic Exeter Chiefs' branding really is - showing that our campaign is making a difference.

How can people get involved and support your work?

To support our campaign, you can firstly sign and share our petition at change.org/exeterchiefs and sign up to our mailing list for updates. We would also love if you could write to the club directly with your thoughts about their branding, the more voices the louder the campaign!

You can also follow us on social media @exchiefs4change where we share a wealth of resources. Every Sunday we dedicate our social media feeds to content by Indigenous peoples and in doing so have learnt about so many incredible artists, makers, designers, authors, campaigners and more!

Ultimately this issue extends far beyond the Exeter Chiefs team. There are some amazing campaigns and organisations already addressing the issue of Native mascots as well as many other important issues faced by Indigenous Peoples, EC4C wouldn't exist without the immense amount of work by these groups:

- IllumiNative https://illuminatives.org/ -

- Not Your Mascot https://twitter.com/NotYourMascot -

- Iroquois Roots Rugby https://rootsrugby.org/ -

- Native Spirit Foundation https://nativespiritfoundation.org/ -

- National Congress of American Indians http://www.ncai.org/ -

- Native American Rights Fund https://www.narf.org/ -

Laura Burrows

Exeter Chiefs For Change

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More things you might like:

How signing petitions can make a difference

Why we need Youth Activism

Volunteer Centre Tower Hamlets | Voices of Change Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline | Voices of Change FEAST! | Voices of Change Happy Space | Voices of Change Chit-Chat | Voices of Change The British Lebanese Association | Voices of Change Hospitality Action | Voices of Change MASK | Voices of Change The Baytree Centre | Voices of Change Have some more time to give? Find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and at our website for more inspiration. Do you want to be our next guest blogger for our Voices of Change blog series or want to write for our Spotlight series? Then please get in touch.

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