Friday, February 16, 2007


Chief Illiniwek has taken sabbatical.

The University of Illinois has, at long last, been forced to retire its controversial Native American symbol/mascot (depending upon which side of the fence you sit) once and for all.

As an alum who once supported and celebrated the Chief, I can honestly say I wasn’t surprised or sad to see the Chief finally go – but only because I always knew it was just a matter of time. Those who wanted Illiniwek out were going to get their way eventually – because the people who wanted him to stay were, well, primarily well-to-do white people. And let’s face it – that just didn’t look good under the media's powerful hyper-P.C. microscope.

If Illiniwek supporters had the blessing of the native Amercan community, the story would be radically different. There’d probably be a lot more Chiefs out there, in fact. Chief Iowek. Chief Wisonsiwek. Chief Ohiowek. The names of so many of our nation’s states are derivatives of native American tribes. Fortunately, that hasn’t pissed anyone off yet. (I’ve got a list of alternative state names ready to go in the unlikely event we lose that battle. I like to be prepared.)

Certainly, there is a difference between naming the territories on a map after the native people who had thrived here prior to European expansion (germs!) and dressing up a college kid in an Indian suit and having him prance around barefoot on a basketball court surrounded by thousands of orange-clad white people swinging their arms like tomahawks, many of them reservation drunk and tragically undereducated as to actual Native American history and culture.

Whoa! Did I just say "reservation" drunk? What’s that supposed to mean? Isn’t that a negative Native American stereotype?

It sure is. And, sadly, those are the kinds of stereotypes that will persist in the wake of Illiniwek's burial, while less-offensive (if also less accurate) stereotypes like "the Chief" are discarded in the name of unchecked political correctness.

Personally, I never did see what was so offensive about Chief Illiniwek, his questionably authentic headdress, or his always-spirited quasi-endemic dance routine. While attending Illinois, I never got the feeling the University or its drunk students (myself included...but only after I turned 21, of course) ever regarded the the Chief as an unflattering representation of Native American history and culture. His dress and dance may have been contrived, in part, but not for the purpose of ridiculing a people.

The Chief was most certainly not, as many have argued, a caricature or cartoon – like the Cleveland Indians mascot. To many of us, he seemed real - and we came to associate our school pride with his image: a celebrated symbol of courage, strength, honor, and respect. When I see a Chief decal in the back window of a passing car, I don't giggle at the thought of a dancin' injun. I actually feel a sudden kinship with the driver of that car - as though we are members of the same tribe, so to speak.

It seemed the Chief's authenticity was always in question, and this was an ongoing struggle for supporters. But he wasn't supposed to be an actual person from the past - like Sacajawea, Crazy Horse, or Sitting Bull. He was a cultural composite of the many Native people who we still recognize to this day in the names of so many of our towns, counties, cities, and states. Why would early University officials have elected to associate their state school, its image and athletic program with a complete mockery?

Of course, they never did. But in the eyes of those who matter, that's what he has become.

And that, my friends, is really all that matters. I do not belong to the ethnic group of people his half-time circus act means to represent. I’m a mutt of various European descents - white bred to the core. So I’m really in no position to judge whether or not he is offensive to Native Americans. Only Native Americans can make that determination. And it appears they have. If the Native people after whom Chief Illiniwek was modeled find his use offensive, then it's incumbent upon those in power to be respectful of that - even if we the people cannot find it in ourselves to.

That's the point most die-hard supporters I know just don't get. It’s not whether white people, or people of other colors for that matter, find him offensive – it’s the people he is meant to represent who matter. If I call you "wise" and mean it in a good way, but you think I'm making fun of you, it doesn't matter that I am meaning it in a good way. All that matters is how you are taking it. If I keep calling you "wise" knowing that you don't like it, then I am disrespecting you. And that's what's been going on here for years.

It is indeed unfortunate that Illiniwek WAS respected and revered as a positive symbol of Native American culture. Minority groups may not have thought so - but he was. Had they come to appreciate the Chief as we did (and do), they would not have objected to his contrived pageantry and traditional exhibition. They would have embraced him. To an objective third party, the Chief's half-time ceremony wasn't an "offensive" one in and of itself. Illiniwek wasn't waving around a fist full of scalps. He wasn't shown stealing the women and raping the horses, or vice versa. He was simply performing a dance that celebrated the history of the people after whom our state was named. If that's a stereotype, I've got to tell you I've seen worse. But it's not about me. And I suppose that is all I need to know.

So save your Illini gear - might be worth something some day. Like the embarrassing lawn jockeys my grandfather, bless his departed heart, had no problem putting out in his front yard. Relics of a similar, less-enlightened time when it seemed okay to do something we have since agreed it is not.

Progress isn't always popular.

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