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Ken Maguire
Associated Press

A leading English rugby club has joined the ranks of professional sports teams rebranding themselves away from offensive Native American imagery.

Exeter Chiefs are keeping their nickname — inspired by the region’s Celtic history — but are replacing their logo after critics complained that headdresses and “tomahawk chop” chants were dehumanizing.

The rebranding is the result of a public campaign that picked up steam amid wider social justice efforts such as the Black Lives Matter movement that has seen the toppling of statues and renaming of schools.

“We decided the time is right to move on and change,” club chairman and CEO Tony Rowe said in an announcement Thursday. “We've listened. We've taken onboard everything that people said.”

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Exeter has risen to prominence over the past decade, winning the top domestic and European titles in 2020. That's around the time a group of supporters intensified efforts to change the branding, citing also the use of names like “Wigwam” and “Mohawk” at stalls and bars at the club's Sandy Park stadium.

Exeter Chiefs for Change said its “faith in the club has been restored” with the rebranding, which takes effect in July.

The supporters' group had launched a petition drive in the summer of 2020 calling for the changes, but at that time the club agreed only to retire the use of its “Big Chief” mascot.

“Indigenous peoples have long said they are not respected nor honored by the Native imagery,” the group said, “and scientific studies have shown it contributes to some of the ongoing challenges Indigenous peoples face, so we're relieved that those concerns have been listened to and acted upon.”

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David Stirrup, professor of American Literature and Indigenous Studies at the University of Kent, said the branding, adopted along with the nickname in 1999, had “absolutely nothing to do" with either Exeter or Britain.

“There’s no tie between Exeter and Native American tribes,” Stirrup said. “It had just been imported as if it was a commodity from the US football circuit. It just seemed out of place and very strange.”

The Washington NFL franchise dropped its name in 2020 after decades of criticism. It plans to announce its new team name next week. The Cleveland baseball team became the Guardians last November and had earlier dropped its Chief Wahoo logo. But others have resisted change. Then-President Donald Trump joined Atlanta Braves fans in doing the “tomahawk chop” at a World Series game in 2021.

The pressure on Exeter ramped up in the aftermath of the BLM protests, powered in part by the U.S. name changes but mainly by an increasingly visible community of Native American and Indigenous people living in Britain, Stirrup said.

The warlike imagery creates “stereotypes that are very colonially inflected and really makes it hard for people to see the variety and diversity of Indigenous peoples and contemporary life in general," he added.

Critics had not sought to change the nickname, citing its longtime use for teams in Devon county. In its build-up to the rebranding, the club brought in university researchers to “make sure that the branding we adopt now is truly a Devon and Exeter branding,” the CEO Rowe said.

The new logo features a bearded chieftain wearing a helmet “based on the Celtic helmets known to be worn in and around 300 BC,” the club said, citing the region's links to the Iron Age Dumnonii Tribe.

Rebranding will likely exceed 500,000 pounds ($670,000), Rowe said.

“We’re in the sports entertainment business,” he said. “We’re not in the business of arguing with people whether our branding is right or wrong. Let’s leave that now and move on.”

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