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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.
But they didn’t need to, because the actions of former colonists—now violent, land-hungry Americans—took land piecemeal. 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. The Chiefs rewrote their own history in 1999. Perhaps another rebranding is in order.
 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.
 Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 151.
 James Axtell and William C. Sturtevant, “The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping,” William and Mary Quarterly, 37, no. 3 (July 1980): 451-72.
 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.
 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.
 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/.
 Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 2, 3, 7, 183.
 C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 168.
 King, Redskins: Insult and Brand, 168.
 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.
 Deloria, Playing Indian, 186.
 Deloria, Playing Indian, 186.
 Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 46-86.
 C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 1.