“Playing Indian”: Exeter Rugby in a Postcolonial Age

Exeter chiefs3

Rachel Herrmann
University of Southampton
Follow on Twitter at @Raherrmann

On any given weekend, you might find yourself on a train platform, surrounded by sports fans wearing “Native American” headdresses and “war paint,” and waving inflatable tomahawks. They’ll be wearing apparel purchased from the team’s online store (the “Trading Post”), where you can also buy a “Little Big Chief” mascot. During the event, supporters will chant the Tomahawk Chop to get into the spirit of things, and afterward, perhaps they’ll rehash the game on the team’s message boards (“The Tribe”).

No, this isn’t the Atlanta Braves. It’s not the Washington Redskins. This is a rugby match for the Exeter Chiefs. And it evokes Britain’s forgotten imperial American past.

The Exeter Chiefs were called the Exeter Rugby Club until 1999, when they rebranded themselves. They also have an A-League team that (you might have guessed) is named the Braves. The Chiefs’ name and their apparel are problems because they reference the practice of scalping, they erase Native Americans today, and they evoke a history of violent settler colonialism.[1] And it’s an imperial history that belongs to Great Britain as much as the United States.

The allusion to scalping is perhaps the least pressing issue with the Exeter Chiefs because of recent historical work related to scalping, but it’s problematic all the same. The link between tomahawks and scalping was well-established by 1804, when artist John Vanderlyn painted The Death of Jane McCrea, a woman killed in 1777 by Native Americans allied to the British in the American Revolution.[2]

Exeter chiefs2

In this painting, one man raises a tomahawk to mete out a death blow, while the other readies a scalping knife while pulling back McCrea’s hair.

It’s certainly true that Native Americans scalped people, and that the practice was originally an Indian one, as historians James Axtell and William C. Sturtevant have argued.[3]

It’s also true that the American Revolution has been described as a disaster for Native Americans—so much so that the conflict has been dubbed an Indian civil war—particularly among the Iroquois associated with McCrea’s murder, who split into British- and American-allied factions.[4] Perhaps Exeter’s fans, in waving inflatable tomahawks in the air, want to invoke the violence associated with killing one’s enemies.

What rugby enthusiasts might not know is that white Anglo-Americans also scalped Native Americans, and that by the end of the seventeenth century colonial governments were issuing scalp bounties to encourage non-Natives to kill Indians.[5]

Historian Mairin Odle, in her treatment of the decades-long Washington Redskins controversy, has blogged about the history of such state-sponsored violence, which associated one’s enemies with early ideas about skin colour and race.[6] Although she concludes that the term “Redskin” is not directly linked to scalp bounties, such names nevertheless remind us that governments in colonial British North America encouraged white colonists to take Native American body parts, mutilate them, and sell them for profit.

“Playing Indian”

Such controversy over the use of Indian imagery in sports team apparel and naming practices straddles the line between the past and the present. Exeter Chiefs fans who paint their faces and wear war bonnets also pose problems by participating in a form of behaviour that scholar Philip Deloria has called “Playing Indian,” which involves non-Natives dressing up as if they were actual Native Americans.

The practice has a long history that stretches back centuries, but one of the most significant examples is the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when American colonists disguised themselves as Indians while throwing tea into the harbour as a protest against British taxation. Deloria argues that playing Indian became crucial during times when Americans sought to form a national identity, and during times of anxiety and uncertainty, as during later periods of industrialization.[7]

Playing Indian allowed Americans to define themselves by what they were not—they were trying to avoid being British, and so they appropriated aspects of Indian dress. Making one’s self appear Indian offered people a sense of stability during times of confusion because people perceived Native Americans as unchanging—as stuck in some prehistoric, violence-laden past.[8]

Natives Americans, of course, did adapt to changing times, which is why they are still alive today. Playing Indian, however, erases this fact, and flattens the image of the Native American into a moccasin-footed, headdress-wearing, deerskin-clad person, when in fact these sartorial components belong to several different nations.

Part of the irony here, too, is that Exeter Chiefs fans who dress like Native Americans are dressing like people who, until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, were legally prohibited from wearing the clothing associated with their religions and ceremonies.

Most significantly, the behaviour ignores the protests of Native Americans speaking out—over, and over, and over —against such cultural appropriation. The use of Native American imagery today stems from a sense that Euro-Americans have a right to Indianness, a right to remake it, and a right to profit from it.[9]

The practice of profiting from playing Indian brings us to the third issue with the Exeter Chiefs: fans who do it evoke a history of settler colonialism. In the nineteenth century, white Americans played Indian at the same time that they tried to convince themselves that actual Indians had disappeared—they hadn’t.[10] And although the U.S. government never formalized a policy of genocide to make Native Americans disappear, the 1780s and 1790s were “marked by genocidal acts and the genocidal urgings of individuals.”[11]

American land-grabbers, no longer restrained by the handful of British officials (such as Sir William Johnson in the 1750s and 1760s) who sought actively to protect Native land and interests, crossed treaty-sanctioned boundaries to squat on and appropriate Indians’ lands. The U.S. couldn’t officially sanction this policy because of the continuing British presence in the Ohio Valley, the Great Lakes Region, and Upper Canada; the government could not seek to actively exterminate Native British allies.[12]

But they didn’t need to, because the actions of former colonists—now violent, land-hungry Americans—took land piecemeal.[13] After the War of 1812, those actions became easier for the government to stomach. The rhetoric of disappeared Indians set the stage for the formal U.S. policy of Indian removal in the 1830s.

We need to remember that pretending to be Native American – whether through dressing like some composite picture of what an Indian should look like or by calling your team the Chiefs – stems from a long legacy of anti-Indian violence, land grabs, and ethnic cleansing.[14] The Chiefs rewrote their own history in 1999. Perhaps another rebranding is in order.


[1] Historians have gone back and forth about proper terminology for indigenous peoples, and discussion is ongoing. Throughout this piece, I use “Indian,” “Native American,” and “Native” interchangeably, but refer to Indians by more specific names when the sources make it possible to identify them. I have made these decisions based on how Indians in the United States describe themselves today.

[2] Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 151.

[3] James Axtell and William C. Sturtevant, “The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping,” William and Mary Quarterly, 37, no. 3 (July 1980): 451-72.

[4] For descriptions of disaster see Rachel B. Herrmann, “‘No useless Mouth’: Iroquoian Food Diplomacy in the American Revolution,” Diplomatic History, published early online May 20, 2016, 2-3. For civil war see Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in North American Communities (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 26.

[5] John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 13; Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 161-90.

[6] Mairin Odle, “Guest Post: What’s in a Name? On Sports Teams and Scalp Bounties,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, 22 December 2014, available at https://earlyamericanists.com/2014/12/22/guest-post-whats-in-a-name-on-sports-teams-and-scalp-bounties/.

[7] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 2, 3, 7, 183.

[8] C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 168.

[9] King, Redskins: Insult and Brand, 168.

[10] Carolyn Eastman, “The Indian Censures the White Man: ‘Indian Eloquence’ and American Reading Audiences in the Early Republic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 65, no. 3 (July 2008): 535-64, esp. 539, 553, 556, 563.

[11] Deloria, Playing Indian, 186.

[12] Deloria, Playing Indian, 186.

[13] Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 46-86.

[14] C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 1.

41 thoughts on ““Playing Indian”: Exeter Rugby in a Postcolonial Age

  1. I support Exeter Chiefs, and I am also part Native American – I am a Canadian who has lived in Devon for many years. I fear I must take issue with your point about cultural appropriation. You speak of Native Americans (actually, I prefer Indians too) as if they were one people with one culture. They were not. There was as much diversity among Native American cultures as there is in Europe today, probably more so. Fans of the chiefs have borrowed elements from two or three of these cultures to create a fan/tribal culture of their own which in no way approximates any known Native American culture.
    All cultures borrow from each other, and we have been borrowing from Native Americans for a long time. Are all these borrowings disallowed? Should white people not wear moccasins for comfort around the house? Should they not eat sweetcorn, or yams, the cultivation of which was borrowed by white colonists from Native Americans? And where does it end? Must we reject every cultural borrowing, everywhere? If so, then most of the world’s cultures would be rather poorer. Rather than greedily hugging our cultures to ourselves and saying this is mine and no one can have it, why not share with each other?
    I would like to see Chiefs fans made more aware of and more respectful of the Native American cultures they borrow from. But so long as they have that respect and awareness, let them keep wearing their bonnets and buying their souvenirs.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Morgen. I’d hoped my point about specific Indian names and the fracturing of the Iroquois Confederacy would make clear the fact that of course there were many different Native Americans in British North America, and that there were divisions across and within groups–but your point is well taken, and I’m happy to make that more explicit.

      No, we don’t need to stop cultural borrowing at all levels. In fact, there’s some great work being done on indigenous ingredients that encourages non-Natives to explore Native American foodways (I’m thinking here of work by people like Sean Sherman: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/10/07/354053768/the-sioux-chef-is-putting-pre-colonization-food-back-on-the-menu). Where I would draw the line is where many Native Americans/First Nations have drawn the line, and in trying to be as informed as possible my impression is that that line is drawn at clothing that is made without Native consent and sold for profit. If someone wants to buy clothes produced by Native Americans and wear them, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. I, too, would like to see the Chiefs fans made more aware of this distinction, but think that the fans’ lack of respect and awareness, the gross exaggeration of Native culture(s), and the Chiefs’ ability to make money off of fake Native apparel, is what makes it wrong. But then, you and I might just have to agree to disagree on that point.

      1. I thought the writer made it crystal clear that she was aware there were several indian nations, and I don’t think there is any sensible parallel to be drawn between the existence of moccasins in the fashion world and the caricatured use of images of native people for sports teams. As an Englishman, I could have no objection to a foreigner wearing a bowler hat. However, if there was a foreign team with a caricatured mascot called the Limey who sported a bowler hat, it might come off ignorant and offensive, no?

  2. Running with the ball began at the Rugby School in England. Perhaps Exeter’s team names would be more correct for lacrosse teams, a sport begun by the Iroquois. The University of Utah Redskins became Utah Utes in 1972. The Miami University (of Ohio) Redskins became the RedHawks in 1997. The Southern Nazarene University Redskins became the Crimson Storm in 1998. It is time for everyone to go with the flow of history and be mindful of others’ customs.

  3. Perhaps the Rolling Stones shouldn’t have profited from Blues music, and they have profited! Really Rachel, the issue of cultural appropriation has gone way too far. Some might say that you have profited from a form of cultural appropriation due to your profession of complaining about cultural appropriation. It’s insanity gone mad!

    Why is it always white middle class people complaining about this and taking up the cause? Are you offended on behalf of someone else? Are American Indians even aware of a club in England, who play a sport barely recognised in the USA? Were they aware of the Glastonbury festival, who also banned Indian headdresses (now banned), worn at the festival, before a white middle class person brought it to their attention?

    Please stop. This “I’m offended” mentality is driving wedges between people the world over and is very dangerous. The lines where one person is offended/not offended or cultural appropriation has occurred/not occurred are impossible to draw. A far more sensible approach is to not be offended, which means that white middle class people should stop poking the issue.

  4. Morgan put it best and summed up the truth of the culture of Exeter Chiefs fans.
    However, if you had done your research you would know that Exeter were referred to as the “Chiefs” back in the 1930s, which led to the rebranding, so it’s not a recent thing.
    We are all aware of Native American culture, but we are clearly NOT trying to offend anyone at all. “Chiefs” is merely a word added to Exeter to give us a nickname, such as teams like Sale Sharks, (formerly) London Wasps, Northampton Saints (you might find that offensive to Christians & Catholics), Leicester Tigers… Need I go on? And the fans take it and celebrate the nickname for what it is, nothing more than that, and the headdresses, tribal make up and tomahawk chop is simply showing support for the Chiefs, no intention whatsoever to offend any culture.
    You have found offence in absolutely nothing and I think you are merely trying to cause trouble for a team who have made a real success of themselves.
    There are far bigger problems going on in the world right now – well this isn’t even a problem to be honest, is it?
    You’ll probably find more offence in things said & done down at your local rugby club!

  5. I’am sorry but you show your ignorance in sport completely with this comment:

    “Perhaps Exeter’s fans, in waving inflatable tomahawks in the air, want to invoke the violence associated with killing one’s enemies.”

    Not only do you seemingly not understand the massive differnce not only in class but also in general personality between Football and Rugby crowds in making such laughable statements, But you also appear to be using multiple cherry picked examples to suit your own purpose as I read through this blog. Need I remind you that the Tomahawk was not only a weapon to the native americans but also a domestic tool that has historically been used to fashion canoes and chop down trees. So you are very much cherry picking a context and using it to imply that context when you suggest that the tool was soley used for the violent practice of scalping, A practice you even admit does not take place with a tomahawk.

    “while the other readies a scalping knife while pulling back McCrea’s hair.”

    Have people been killed with a Tomahawk throughout human history, Of course.. Have people been killed with or by all manner of equipment from footballs to water pistols… Again of course.. But while the point is that just because someone has died by its usage that does not mean that its usage in a branding is thereforebad practice or racist considering that people have been killed after being hit by a football. So is the FC Barcelona logo offensive to people who have been killed by footballs?

    You also go onto refrence the Redskins naming issue, And I agree that is a racist name however again I must correct you I would hope you are aware that the National Congress of American indians are actively only pushing one team to change their name. They are not pushing the Kansas City Chiefs or any other team carrying any other native american branding. The media have very much sensationalized this story and suggested that the issue also involves the other brandings but as of this moment all protests and issues have been torwards the one name. Also need I remind you further that Chief was included in the video put out by the National Congress of American indians as an acceptable name for themelves which appears at 38 seconds on the below video.

    I even find fault with the following suggestion:
    “The Chiefs’ name and their apparel are problems because they reference the practice of scalping, they erase Native Americans today, and they evoke a history of violent settler colonialism.”

    Where on Exeter’s branding and name does it envoke, suggest or even refrence the practice of Scalping? I see no mention of it anywhere or anything that even comes close to suggesting it? You are making a mountain out of a molehill and as far as Iam concerned this is very much sensationalist drivel.. While I do personally object to the Little Chief Doll and the Chiefs Mascot I have no objection with the Exeter Chiefs as a whole and I have no problem with their branding.

    1. 1) “So is the FC Barcelona logo offensive to people who have been killed by footballs?” Is that, on reflection, a fair analogy? A football is nothing but a football, it serves only one intended purpose, and people who have been “killed by footballs” must be few in number and the result of freak accidents. If you wanted to draw a parallel with an item that could be used as both tool and weapon, you might choose a hammer. If a bunch of fans waved inflatable hammers up and down, do you honestly think that would be more about evoking the practice of repairing things around the house, as opposed to wielding it as a weapon?

      2) Related to this, the appropriation of the tomahawk by the team has nothing to do with its domestic use, it is entirely about its application as a weapon. We see plenty of sports teams with guns, cannons, swords and blades as their emblems. Relatively few use chisels and putty.

      3) Your attempt to suggest that while football fans may be open to such accusations of violence while rugby fans are not is a little rich, and has nothing to do with excusing the appropriation of a caricatured version of a foreign culture for a sports team’s image.

  6. I am a rugby supporter (not Exeter) who has found the chanting, head-dresses and ‘tomahawk chops’ culturally inappropriate and immature. Rugby needs to grow up and while we are at it England should ditch ‘swing low, sweet chariot’ which is a hangover from 1980s casual racial stereotyping.

    1. Sue, Swing Low was first sung by a group of visiting school girls from the African village of the first black player to represent England. They sung the song as a celebration on his first cap. They have gotten over it, perhaps you should also?

    2. So what team do you support Sue? Saracens, Tigers, Saints, Sharks, Falcons, Warriors, Wasps, the All Blacks, the Springboks….? Seriously, it’s a name.

  7. She should do the laundry and go to the hairdresser instead of looking for stupid problems. In no way Chiefs is an offense to native american people like saints are no offence to Christians nor the Giants are no offence to people who are too tall. The world has a lot of other problems that deserve to be addressed firstly instead of thinking about the name of a team.

    1. Other problems…like sexism? Why not just disagree with the article and make your point? Why make it personal? Attack the article, not the writer.

  8. Rachel, you clearly know your stuff, it’s just a shame that you know nothing about the game of rugby, it’s values, it’s morals or the spirit in which the game is played at all levels globally. I have had the privilege of playing at many clubs across the world and have met a wide mix of people from all walks of life, with differing political and religious beliefs, who, for 80 minutes on Saturday afternoon go to war with their opposition but will always treat that same opponent as a brother or sister once the game has finished. The Exeter Chiefs brand is just that, a brand, something for the fans to get behind and rattle the opposition team if possible, and if you ever have the chance to visit Sandy Park you will find a lot of noisy locals who are also very hospitable, welcoming and unoffensive. I would guess that a large section of these fans are also aware of the implications of wearing a fake headdress, the teams colours painted on their face of waving an inflatable tomahawk, although the Chiefs are not the only fans to wear fake hats, paint their faces or wave something that could be seen as offensive by someone. Yes they have borrowed some items from a distant culture but lets not forget that there once were tribes in Devon and Cornwall who would have undoubtedly also had Chiefs. There are plenty of teams across the globe from all sports that could be deemed offensive to someone, there are a few that I could find in the American NFL, MLB and NBA, I could also say that Southampton FC’s nickname of the Saints is inciting religious discourse, the New Zealand All Blacks are also clearly racist and the Waikato Chiefs should also deserve a mention. If you find this name/brand offensive you seriously need to get out more and open your eyes to what is happening in the world. Lets all move forward and enjoy it for what it is, sport. It’s not trying to offend anyone or rub anyone’s nose in it, it’s a name, a brand, a teams identity. It’s not an insult or a snub. All of you points are interesting but completely out of date and out of touch, instead of calling for the name to be changed why don’t you do something positive with you knowledge rather than bitching. Grow up and get some perspective please.

    1. There probably were tribes in southern UK that had chiefs, but the fans are not reproducing the styles of those tribes. Rather they are using crude stereotypes of Native cultures from North America, so it seems fairly clear which Chiefs we are talking about. There is a difference between the Southampton Saints and the Exeter Chiefs for the simple reason that Saints refers to something within our own culture, and Chiefs is appropriated from a minority group that have suffered our colonialist designs on their land, etc. Moreover, the Christian community in the UK certainly has significant power to address this if the faithful are offended, whereas the Native Americans do not have such a luxury, in the UK nor in the USA.

  9. What you don’t get, is that references to chiefs, elders are a show of strength and pride. Strong warriors are a show of respect in a mans world. Chiefs/ redskins etc are used in sports generally played by men as you called out – rugby, American football etc. It has nothing to do with colonialism and your thesis going back to 1700 or something shows that the Spanish were there then – us Brits hadn’t quite made it over. Pipe down and grow up, sticking up for American Indians when you have a German/ Austrian surname is like taking your Alsatian dog for a shit on the fields, not picking it up then getting annoyed at a 3 year old chiwawas shit that has already decomposed, get over yourself you are creating an issue where there wasn’t one to spark an argument, if only I had my tomohawk…..

  10. Thanks for re-posting this. I find it is an important debate that has been very lively in the US for some time. Unlike what some of the comments suggest, there is not clear consensus among Native communities in the US that such names as the Braves, Indians, or Chiefs are ok. For example, Ward Churchill makes a strong argument against such names in multiple essays and in his book “Indians Are Us?”, and more recently Dave Zirin devoted an episode of his podcast Edge of Sports to this debate (http://www.edgeofsportspodcast.com/post/144998827970/the-washington-slurs-clap-back-on-wapo-poll-with). Whether or not we find this issue trivial, we must at least consider why a universal image of a native Chief is ok, but universal images of Jewish or Black men are generally not acceptable. The logo of the Exeter team is a representation of a Native Chief that is not grounded in anything except non-native projection of Native chiefs. It is a crude stereotype that invokes assumptions (also positive ones) we have, rather than actually saying anything about the Native culture this is taken from. In this, the question of sport team mascots clearly is part of a much wider debate on how dominant white culture can take, even “honor”, native culture without ever addressing our historical crimes that continue to deeply affect these communities.

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