KAA Gent is often referred to by its second name: the Buffalos. At every match, you will hear the entire audience chant ‘Buffalo! Buffalo! KAA Gent!’ from the bleachers. This has been a tradition ever since the 1920s. The head of an Indian chieftain was first featured on the flag of KAA Gent in 1924. In 2001, Ben became the team’s mascot on and around the field. He was joined by Mel in 2010. How though did the image of a Native American find its way to Ghent? And how should we deal with it when placed within a modern-day context?
The word ‘Buffalo!’ as a cheer has its origins in 1895, when the famed American Barnum & Bailey Circus featuring William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, first visited the city of Ghent. It those times, it was typical for European circuses to feature a ‘Cowboys and Indians’ show with the intention of introducing European audiences to life in the Wild West. During the show, the audience was encouraged to shout the words ‘Buffalo! Buffalo!’. Impressed by Cody’s tour of Belgium, a group of students in Ghent introduced the yell into student life, even welcoming King Albert to the University of Ghent by cheering ‘Buffalo! Buffalo!’ in 1913.
During the 1920 Olympic games in Antwerp, the Belgian athlete Omar Smet, who was a member of the KAA Gent athletic department, responded to the rhythmical cheering of the American delegation with the student yell ‘Buffalo! Buffalo!’ Together with him, KAA Gent was subsequently given its alias: ‘The Buffalos’. The association used this name for the first time in the 1921 edition of its journal, and the head of an Indian chieftain first appeared on the supporters’ flag of the KAA Gent football club in 1924
Nevertheless, many years passed between Buffalo Bill’s visit to Belgium in 1895 and KAA Gent’s decision to use an Indian chieftain as a logo within an athletic context in the early 1920s. The population of Ghent associated this circus, which visited Ghent in both 1895 and 1906, with the Sioux tribe and the conspicuous feather headdresses worn by the Indian chiefs who performed in the circus together with Cody the cowboy. That is the story of how the image of a Native American was introduced into the sports culture of the city of Ghent.
KAA Gent is aware of the public debate in American society around the use of stereotypical images and caricatures of Native Americans by sports associations.
The logo used by KAA Gent is not a stereotypical caricature. Neither does it represent an aggressive savage. The KAA Gent logo is a neutral image of a Native American chieftain, composed in profile, with his gaze on the horizon and looking towards the future.
Our name is KAA Gent, the acronym for Koninklijke Atletiek Associatie Gent [in English: The Ghent Royal Athletic Association]. Our alias has been ‘the Buffalos’ since the 1920s; the result of a tradition initiated by students in a university town. A buffalo is a bison that is indigenous to the United States, where it is considered an iconic symbol of the Wild West and has no negative connotations whatsoever.
The role of Ben and Mel as mascots of KAA Gent became part of the football association more recently than one would assume, based on the logo. Ben has been around for fifteen years, and Mel for six. In the first place, they are a symbol of the familial character of KAA Gent and they work voluntarily to represent all the positive aspects of the association.
The cultural historical context in which the logo of KAA Gent was developed shows that the decision made by the supporters of KAA Gent to choose a Native American as its logo in 1924 was a positive one. They associated KAA Gent with values such as respect, courage and honour. Values that they attributed to the Native Americans rather than to their white oppressor.
We firmly believe that we must also show the guardians of the Native American heritage in North America that we aim to promote these same values of respect, courage and honour within a European athletic context. This is why KAA Gent is particularly sympathetic to the objections that Native American communities have today with regard to the use of their symbols in the USA.
It is estimated that over 100 million Native Americans died as a result of five centuries of persecution, discrimination and hardship. In the United States, they are still now victims of poor employment and living conditions, a lack of education, poverty, substandard housing and generally weak health.
This is why we ask our supporters and employees to be aware of the social relevance of KAA Gent’s logo and to always bear it with respect and a sense of responsibility.
With this logo, KAA Gent draws attention throughout Europe to the social situation facing the Native American population today. The football organisation has decided to limit the commercial use of its connection with Native Americans exclusively to the use of its logo.
Through our Voetbal in de stad [in English: ‘Football in the City’] community service organisation we will investigate, along with representatives of the Native American population, if and how KAA Gent can organise a social partnership with an initiative in the United States that aims to bring about an improvement in the standard of living experienced by Native Americans, using football as a powerful instrument.