minutia press.
The Chief

The Post today had an article about the "symbol" of the University of Illinois, Chief Illiniwek. The Chief apparently doesn't travel to "away" games any more owing to the criticism sometimes received from the stands concerning the University's racial insensivity.

I think of myself as a non-racist person, so I'm at a loss as to why I don't agree with those who feel the Chief is a symbol whose time has come and gone. Illinois is a state that once had thriving Indian tribes, the Illini for one, and it is a source of pride now for the state. When I was at U of I, the Chief reminded me of the true roots of the area in which I lived. He also reminded me of the injustices handed to the Native Americans when this country was founded at their expense. One Native American was quoted in the article as saying that the Chief was a source of humiliation for her when she had her children with her and her kids saw the Chief.

I don't get it.

If the Chief were somehow in wax in a museum dedicated to the culture and artifacts of the Illini, there would surely be no humiliation involved. But a live emulation of the Chief, who performs an intricate dance in the spirit of the Illini (a new move is appended to the dance each year, so the Chief has a lot to learn before taking on the job), is humiliating?

Somebody, help me be sensitive here. For more on the U of I traditions, take a look here .


I had to take a class called "Cross-Cultural Journalism" while at Mizzou, and we discussed this particular subject at length. We weren't able to come to a consensus then, and I doubt we'll be able to come up with one now. But here's my take.

I saw that same story and accompanying poll on the Post's site, and I had a similar reaction to the poll I saw a few days ago on CNN.com that asked "Do you think Terri Schiavo is in pain?"

It is not my job to decide whether or not she's in pain. What would I know about it? And when I saw that Chief Illiniwek poll and realized just about 100 percent of the people who would be offering their opinions on the topic were white (or at least non-Native American), I again thought, "It is not our job to decide that." Of course we aren't offended -- that's not our heritage (or a farce of it) being represented by a silly dancing white guy who might as well be beating his chest and talking about teepees.

I understand the school has tried to make the chief as historically accurate as possible, but if the Native Americans who go to that school and live in that state disagree with his existence, then we need to abide by that. (I've heard people tell me about polls that show a huge percentage of Native Americans don't care, but I'd like to see that in writing. If they really don't care, then keep the guy.)

When you see images from the time in American culture when whites wore "black face" and acted in a stereotypical African-American manner, don't you feel horrified or at least a little sad? I do. Perhaps the white people at the time didn't realize they were being offensive, but to a minority who was unable to do much about it, it was humiliating, and I know it still must be.

The bottom line is that school mascots should not generate anything but excitement for the school team. Why keep him if it's not that big of a deal? School pride doesn't have to be dressed up in a silly costume to exist.

Posted by: Rachel at March 31, 2005 8:09 AM

Oh, I wanted to point something else out (because my comment just wasn't long enough!). We all become offended when we see depictions of blacks, Latinos, Jews, Asians, etc. that seem to be less than politically correct. I've happened to see, many times, a Mexican American wearing a poncho or serape and a sombrero tending to farm animals (yes, even burros) in Texas. But we would be shocked to see that idea represented in a mascot, leading that burro around a sports arena, even if it's based in some truth.

I think the reason it's harder for us to be culturally sensitive to Native Americans is because there are so few of them left. We all have friends of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, but they're far less represented in our country.

Posted by: Rachel at March 31, 2005 9:10 AM

I know that my school recently retired their Indian and Otahkian mascots in favor of a poorly made Rowdy the RedHawk. They claim they did it to lose the offensiveness of the Indian (even though the Otahkian name is in memory of Princess Otahki who died on the Trail of Tears which cut straight through Cape Girardeau) and to create a beter sense of School Spirit. My fiance and I don't think that's the reason (and we aren't the only ones). We think that they were doing it to sell more since they couldn't make much money off the other nicely designed SEMO emblem. I think it's already starting to backfire.

Posted by: AtheneBelle at March 31, 2005 3:20 PM

Rachel, thanks. I think your comments boil down to the fact that I can't appreciate how the Chief makes Native Americans feel, since I am not one. That makes sense to me.

I suppose that if a vast majority of Native Americans are not insulted by the Chief, we could keep the guy, but I wonder now (that I'm on the other side of the issue) if he should go even if a small minority feel oppressed by his image.

Posted by: rkc at March 31, 2005 9:55 PM

I have to say, out of all the people in the world, you'd be the last person I'd suspect of being anything close to racist. It's really hard to be sensitive to a group of people so small and, frankly, so poorly mobilized, so I think trying to keep an open mind (like you did here and always do) is really the only thing you can do.

Posted by: Rachel at April 1, 2005 12:04 PM


Posted by: rkc at April 2, 2005 11:00 AM

This is unrelated to your post, but there's a website I've been meaning to send you a link to for a while. This guy reminds me a lot of you in the way that he talks about his family and his religion. Similar to you, he is Jewish and has three children. However, he decided to move from America to Israel to raise them. It's really interesting reading, in my opinion.


Posted by: light at April 2, 2005 2:36 PM

As a European, I am always puzzled by the way white Americans approach native Americans and their problematic history. Most often, I just don't get it.

I think it was Noam Chomsky who noticed that Americans name their weapons after people they mass-murdered: Tomahawk missiles, Apache helicopters, etc. When I once discussed this with a white, rather right-wing American, and I asked how he would feel about Germans calling their latest weapon Jew or Gipsy, he answered that these situations are completely different. According to him, the Americans honnor the strenght of the old native-American tribes by giving their names to their strongest weapons.

While I am willing to believe that this naming is done with the best intention from the white-American point-of-view, I surely understand that it is not always seen like that from the native-American perspective. Similarly, I guess that having a native-American mascot will not be appreciated in the same way from both sides. Fortunately, everyone would be offended if a German soccer team would have a dancing mascot that primarily models a Jew or a Gipsy.

Posted by: bjorn at April 2, 2005 5:36 PM

While it doesn't justify things, I think we should look at intent and insensitivity here. The Chief and the weapon names were chosen not out of intent to insult or humiliate, but I can now see (and I'm grateful for my new perspective) how they could be both insulting and humiliating.

"Colonization" of this country was a different experience from the Holocaust. From my perspective as an American Jew, I'm grateful to live in this amazing country and very sad about those (of my faith or others) who were killed in the Holocaust. The world has demanded restitution from those responsible for the Holocaust. We Americans have probably not done what is fully right in terms of restitution to Native Americans. Should we give back this country to them and leave? I hope not.

But let's see if we agree that there is a continuum of feelings on the receiving side as well. Some people will take great offense at what may seem and actually be trivial observances, while others may not feel the least insulted.

Doing the right thing is tough indeed. We strive to be a multicultural nation -- one that embraces our diversity rather than pretends we are all the same. But I keep seeing Rachel's point and the comment above and I do feel that a white guy pretending to be a Native American Chief so that a crowd can get excited about winning a football game is a tricky situation.

Posted by: rkc at April 3, 2005 11:44 AM