Yes, that's a white guy. He's “Chief Illiniwek,” the mascot for the University of Illinois; he performs a dance during halftime at football and basketball games. Well, he used to. Last night he danced his last dance, because the University of Illinois has reluctantly retired him from service in the face of pressure from the NCAA resulting from a longrunning movement objecting to how he offends Native Americans.
I first heard of the Chief a couple of years ago, when Michael Bérubé reflected on him. He reported that before he ever saw the Chief perform he wrote a little academic piece about why he was such a problematic figure.
The emotions and arguments of the Chief's ardent local supporters have close analogies in minstrelsy, which was vigorously defended, 100-150 years ago, as a vehicle for and tribute to authentic African American humor. (Today, these defenses of minstrelsy are either merely laughable or utterly unthinkable, and no sensible person would seek to revive them.) Similarly, the Chief's supporters insist on the “dignity” of this figure, and the “tradition” that underwrites his continued appearance. Yet no American university that wanted to think of itself, as Illinois rightly does, as a “world-class institution” would offer up a minstrel show at its athletic performances, regardless of how passionately attached to such shows anyone had become. Imagine, if you will, the further spectacle of alumni and trustees and state representatives testifying to their deep love of these humorous characters whose noble culture is enshrined in the revered tradition of the minstrel show. Such a spectacle would properly be seen, in 1999, not so much as a slur against African Americans as a shameful acknowledgment that the university offering the spectacle—and the people cheering it on—had no idea whatsoever that the racial discourse of 1900 was no longer appropriate to the year 2000.
When he actually sees the Chief in action, something subtler surfaces.
As they clapped and smiled and bounced, on came the Chief himself. It was a profoundly cringe-inducing experience. The Chief's supporters insist that his routine is “loosely patterned after Native American fancy dance”; now, I know even less about Native dance than I know about smooth jazz, but I am not aware of any indigenous dance forms that involve lots of splits and jumping and touching your toes in mid-air. I turned to Nick and said, “never mind the debate about whether the Chief is racist—this stuff should be banned for sheer cheesiness alone.” But I said it sotto voce.
For as I watched and cringed and cringed some more, I noticed that sure enough, people around me were cheering and tearing up. And I began to think, this is as much a cultural divide as a political one, a divide between those with a liberal cringe reflex and those without. Surely, for my fellow Illinois fans, my visceral reaction to the Chief was just the mirror image of their visceral reaction to the Chief—except that mine was defined by what they would see as an elitist, nose-pinching, PC rectitude that symbolizes everything wrong with liberal college professors. I don’t have any problem with the name “Illini,” actually—or, for that matter, with the name “Illinois.” But the Chief and his halftime dance are another order of thing altogether. Please, I thought, let this hopping-and-skipping minstrel show end, and let’s get back to basketball. I didn’t come here to meditate on town and gown—or on what we’d now call blue and red America.
Bérubé's observation underlines a slippery point. The Chief is, to my eyes, undeniably a manifestation of racist injustice. He is a cartoon Indian in a world where Native Americans are rarely ever represented any other way. He is a misrepresentation of a real people in a mascot fraternity of, as Mr Bérubé puts it, “culturally innocuous, inoffensively-named Golden Rodents Of Some Kind.” Native Americans should not be keeping symbolic company with gophers and badgers.
But I can comprehend how U of I partisans' professed love for the Chief is unmotivated by bigoted malice. Like all of my classmates I love my alma mater's mascot the quirky Banana Slug beyond all reason. Legend holds that when the chancellor of the University tried to change the mascot to the more mundane Sea Lion, the campus went berzerk with protests until the mighty Slug was restored. (Hardly extraordiary at UCSC, one of the most protest-happy schools in the US, but still.) And I suspect that most of my readers can think of similar irrational enthusiasms of their own.
So I'm sorry that some folks have this kind of affection yoked to a racist caricature. Lack of malice does make affection for the Chief forgivable ... but attachment to him reflects a disregard for the concerns of people who are wounded by him, and that disregard is bigotry.
I sometimes reflect that Al Jolson, the famed blackface singer from the dawn of recorded music, is inaccessable to us. He was reputedly a master of his art, brilliant and moving, but he sang in blackface and like most contemporary Americans I just can't get past that; it goes past offensive all the way to baffling. So his artistry is lost to me ... and I insist that it is a loss. Any artist's work that we can no longer enjoy diminishes us. But I would have it no other way. The dignity which that loss buys us is more than enough compensation.
So I apologize to the Chief's fans. You have lost something, guys, I won't deny it. I know that we lefties are sometimes eager to force our values on other Americans, but I won't apologize for that. I hold that history shows that these demands are always in service of justice and dignity.
So sorry about that, Chief. But get the hell off the stage, and don't come back.