Tomahawk Chops and Native American Mascots: In Europe, Teams Don’t See a Problem

Buffalo Ben, the official team mascot for the Belgian soccer team K.A.A. Gent. His sidekick is a female version named Buffalo Mel.

GHENT, Belgium — Benjamin Bundervoet was wearing his normal workday outfit — a blue-and-white feathered headdress, a fringed tunic and chaps, bright paint streaked across his cheeks — as he stepped onto the grass.

For the next few hours, Bundervoet would be Buffalo Ben, the official team mascot for K.A.A. Gent, a top Belgian soccer team. As the players warmed up before kickoff at a recent home match, Bundervoet smiled and waved a flag bearing the team’s logo, the profile of a Native American, which is also plastered around the Ghelamco Arena.

Scenes like this play out every weekend across Europe, where teams big and small and across a variety of sports employ Native American names, symbols and concepts of wildly variable authenticity in their branding. There’s the hockey team in the Czech Republic that performs a yearly sage-burning ritual on the ice, the rugby team in England whose fans wear headdresses and face paint, the German football team called the Redskins and many more.

For years, these teams were insulated from the vigorous discussion about the use of this type of imagery by sports teams in the United States, where critics long ago deemed the practice offensive and anachronistic. This year, the Cleveland Indians announced that they would stop using their Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms beginning in 2019, continuing a decades-long trend in which thousands of such references have disappeared from the American sports landscape.

During that same period, though, new examples were appearing in Europe, where teams and fans have long viewed the mascots and logos through kaleidoscopes of local culture and, detached from the charged history that the imagery carries in the North America, formed their own ideas about what is socially acceptable.

But these ideas are slowly being challenged, and increasingly these teams are finding themselves being asked to confront the same questions of representation, appropriation and stereotyping. K.A.A. Gent, for example, devotes a lengthy page on its website to the history of its logo and nickname, but notes only that the club is “aware of the public debate in American society around the use of stereotypical images and caricatures.”

K.A.A. Gent declined to make any officials available to discuss the topic, and when it learned a New York Times reporter had arranged an interview with Bundervoet, the club intervened and canceled it.

“Americans, Canadians, they’re working on this issue, talking about it, debating,” said Stephanie Pratt, a cultural ambassador for the Crow Creek South Dakota Sioux and longtime resident of Exeter, England. “Europeans are late to the table. They’re just beginning to debate it — or maybe not at all.”

Pratt has found herself in the middle of one such debate involving the Exeter Chiefs, the defending champions of England’s rugby union league.

Exeter, which rebranded itself as the Chiefs in 1999, calls its team store the Trading Post and its online fan group the Tribe. Fans chat on a message board named Pow-Wow. Among the 15 bars at the team’s home stadium are Wigwam, Cheyenne, Apache, Mohawk, Tomahawk, Buffalo and Bison. Just inside the main entrance to the arena stands the team’s Five Nations Totem Pole, memorializing the five countries visiting Exeter for the 2015 Rugby World Cup (not, as some might guess, the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.)

Two years ago, Rachel Herrmann, a historian of early American history at Cardiff University, wrote a blog post criticizing the team after noticing “a bunch of people dressed up as Indians” on a train platform one afternoon and learning that they were fans of the club. Herrmann’s essay “Playing Indian: Exeter Rugby in a Postcolonial Age” was eventually picked up by a local reporter, Ed Oldfield of Devon Live, who reached out to Pratt for her rare perspective as a person who could speak as a member of both the Native American and Exeter communities.

The articles sparked a robust local conversation that soon received coverage in the national news media. Herrmann, who began receiving hate mail around that time, said she was disappointed that the conversation devolved into an argument “about whether Exeter fans were racist” rather than “the more interesting question of how a country with such a clearly imperial history has incorporated these mascots.”

The Chiefs for the past two years have made no public statements about the discussion and declined several requests for comment from The New York Times. “We have ‘no comment’ to make and do not want to engage in any article on this subject,” a team spokesman wrote in an email message last week.

Pratt has been to one Chiefs game. She saw the mascot (a costumed character named Big Chief), heard the fans’ war chants and watched them do the “tomahawk chop” and decided never to return. She said such behavior reduced almost 600 distinct tribes into a single clumsy caricature based on 19th-century stereotypes.

“There’s a learning curve for people in Europe, but it needs to be done,” Pratt said.

In other cases, American Indian references reflect a deep fascination with the culture in some parts of the continent.

HC Plzen, a hockey team in Pilsen, Czech Republic, rebranded with an American Indian logo and mascot in 2009. The Czech Republic is one of the many countries in Europe where the novels of the 19th-century German writer Karl May, who wrote adventure stories about the American West that depicted Indians as noble savages, were wildly popular and hugely influential in shaping the European public consciousness of Native Americans. (May, whose books have sold more than 100 million copies, never set foot in North America.)

Lucie Muzikova, a spokeswoman for HC Plzen, said the club’s logo — the profile of a Red Indian wearing a white headdress — was designed in part as a nod to the insignia of the United States Army’s Second Infantry Division, which liberated Pilsen near the end of World War II.

As part of its in-game presentation, HC Plzen employs the help of West Park, a nearby museum with a 19th-century American West theme. At the start of each season, performers from West Park, who are not of American Indian descent, conduct a public sage-burning ceremony, traditionally seen as a cleansing ritual, inside the team’s arena. Before every game, the performers play drums and carry out a purifying ritual as the players skate onto the ice amid a swirl of smoke, lights and music.

“We perform everything the way the Natives are doing it and with deep respect,” Petra Michlova, a marketing manager and show team member at West Park, said.

Acknowledging that some teams might have only good intentions, Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche writer and a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, nevertheless said that he felt “dressing up as Indians is pretty much always a mistake.”

“Pretty much everybody agrees you’re just not going to name a team after an entire ethnic group,” Smith added. “Nobody would do that anymore, so the question is, why is it O.K. to keep it? Those general ideas about what’s appropriate would apply to European teams, too.”

But many clubs in Europe have only recently been forced to ponder that question.

Buffalo Ben, the mascot for K.A.A. Gent, was introduced in 2001 and existed seemingly free of criticism until 2016. That year, De Standaard, a daily newspaper, published a wide-ranging interview with Suzan Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Indian nations and longtime advocate for Indian rights in the United States. At one point, the interviewer informed Harjo about K.A.A. Gent and Buffalo Ben, noting the mascot was a white man wearing stereotypical Indian regalia.

Pointing to studies about the potential harm such mascots can inflict on the self-esteem of American Indian youth, and noting that sports today exist on an international stage, Harjo encouraged the team to alter its branding.

The exchange gained broader notice in the Belgian news media, inspiring a quick flurry of columns and leading the team to create the page on its website explaining the history of its nickname and logo, which it said dates to a visit to Ghent more than a century ago by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a touring circus-style cowboy show. An Indian chief first appeared on a K.A.A. Gent flag in 1924.

Small adjustments were made. The name of Buffalo Ben’s occasional female companion, Squaw Mel, was changed to Buffalo Mel, and the team added a new page on its site explaining the “gigantic social challenges” facing Indians in the United States. But nothing else changed. In the team’s view, the context of its use of the logo and mascot was entirely different from the situation in the United States.

In declining several requests to discuss the use of Native American imagery, K.A.A. Gent expressed a desire to avoid another debate about its branding. It referred a reporter to the information on its website.

But in a brief phone call in response to follow-up questions posed to the club, Wim Beelaert, coordinator of the K.A.A. Gent Foundation, explained the organization’s point of view that while such logos may indeed be offensive in the United States, they are not so in Belgium.

“We don’t have a historic debt toward the Native American community,” he said. “We don’t have a natural debt toward the Native American community. And I think these two things are different in the United States. That’s what we mean when we say we are working in a different historical and cultural context.”

In an interview in April, Harjo, who spent five years of her youth living in Naples, Italy, brushed aside the idea that context mattered. “I’m not speaking as an American or as a European,” she said. “I’m commenting on American behavior and European behavior, both of which objectify native peoples. This is consistent for more than 500 years now.”

Harjo said there was no right way to use an Indian as a sports mascot because it puts her people “right there with the animals and the nonhuman beings.”

At least one team in Europe has acknowledged the movement and made changes: Two years ago, the Streatham Redskins, England’s oldest ice hockey club, announced that they would look for a new nickname after determining that theirs, which was introduced in 1974, did not reflect the organization’s values. Fans of the club eventually voted to adopt the RedHawks.

But most other clubs have no interest, at least for now, in doing the same.

The Frolunda Indians, a professional hockey team from Gothenburg, Sweden, was known as Vastra Frolunda IF until 1995, around the time that the Swedish Hockey League began encouraging its clubs to adopt American-style nicknames. Inspired by the Chicago Blackhawks and the fact that the team in the 1960s was said to play in a “vilda vastern,” or Wild West, style, it chose the Indians.

The club developed a cartoon logo depicting an Indian chief with a headdress fanned around his stern face, and for a time the team’s costumed mascot was a Native American hockey player with a missing tooth and feathers poking through his helmet. (These days, the team’s in-stadium mascot is an anthropomorphic bison.)

In 2015, a man in Sweden filed two separate official reports to the Equality Ombudsman, a government agency that addresses discrimination, accusing the team of spreading a stereotypical image of Native Americans. “I want Sweden to show that you do not tolerate insulting the culture of others,” he wrote, according to the copy of the complaint provided to The Times by the agency.

The club dismissed his concerns, and the Equality Ombudsman ultimately rejected the claim.

“We, from a distance, follow the discussions about the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians,” said Peter Pettersson Kymmer, a Frolunda team spokesman. “But we sincerely think that our Indian, in our point of view, is in no way offensive to the Native Americans. On the contrary, it’s a tribute, and we’re proud to wear it.”

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