“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.” A. Keh, The New York Times
“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.’
“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… 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.)
‘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.”