22 February 2007


Chief Illinewek in action

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.

A parallel example in the UK.


Hoka-shay-honaqut said...


Unknown said...

Since when in America did it become fashionable or acceptable to force one's beliefs upon another?

Who but the University and the students themselves should decide this issue?

Who are any of you who a) don't or b) didn't attend this University chiming in? Enough meaningless chatter from the peanut gallery. Your opinion is worth much less than a retelling of the facts.

The Chief Illiniwek issue has been debated on campus literally for decades. A loud and persistent minority group has pushed this agenda to and through many campus and Board of Trustees debates/votes. The desire of the majority of the University had been repeatedly made clear. The Chief has been a symbol of the University of Illinois for 80 years.

The University emphasizes that the Chief is not a mascot, he's a symbol of the University. The Chief is not used for advertising, never bonks a Buckeye or Spartan or Hoosier on his big stuffed head, or taunts the opposing team or coaches. There are no flaming arrows or cowboys to chase/be chased by.

Further, the Chief tradition is indeed immensely respectful, as almost anyone who attended the University will attest.

Chief Illiniwek only appears at home games at half-time. Most of the crowd goes arm-in-arm, and, together, sing to the Illini Varsity. Then the band kicks up a frenzy while Chief does his dance.


The Chief, The Dance and the logo may not be everyones taste, but intent is important. The Chief is not intended to hurt harm or insult anyone.

The originators and subsequent Chiefs strove for authenticity in dance and costume.

The University itself has declared through its Board of Trustees:

Wheras Chief Illiniwek has been a treasured symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since its introduction in 1926;

Whereas Chief Illiniwek was created and intended as an honorable and respectful representation of the indiginous people whose name is commemorated in the name of this state and its flagship University;

Whereas, Chief Illiniwek has symbolized the dignity, strength, intelligence, and grace to which athletic teams at U-C campus have aspired;
-- end Board of Trustees quotes

Chief Illinwek is actually recognized symbol of the University by the Illinois State Legislature.

Apparently in today's "we-are-all victims" world, if someone else offends me even unintentionally apparently I can demand they stop. As long I am in the ethnic (racial or sexual?) minority.

Eventually accepting that there would be no democratic means-to-their-end, the anti-Chief activists began practicing view-point imperialism.

This from the epicenter of the Anti-Chief debate, the U of I American Studies House:
"In January 1994, we (the anti-Chiefers) compiled our Media Information Packet for dissemination. We mailed copies to the Board of Trustees, the President and the Chancellor, asking once again that the tradition of Chief Illiniwek be discontinued, but to no avail. We then devised a strategy to lobby the Big Ten Athletic Association to pressure the University of Illinois to dismiss its mascot, with no tangible result."

The activist(s) then went to faculty and ultimately the NCAA.

Specifically, a University professor threatened to start phone-calling athletic recruits (violating NCAA restrictions on contact with athletes which would result in probabation or worse for that University athletic program) to inform them they were considering a school with a racially-based mascot.

The same professor was reprimanded by the University for pushing his personal anti-Chief opinion on University stationary using University (IL state taxpayer-funded) postage.

The extremists found their opening with a one-shoe-fits-all NCAA policy ~ paradoxically on inclusiveness.

The NCAA didn't force this University to change; they just threatened to take away post-season advantage and revenues from the already strained budget of it's athletic department. It's the same bullying tactics they used with Title IX. Read more:

Since 2005, several schools, including the University of Illinois, have been subject to sanctions by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which ruled that mascots like Chief Illiniwek were “hostile and abusive.”

These sanctions kept a highly-ranked Illini tennis team from hosting a championship two seasons ago.

In words of understatement, the Illini Atheltic Director said “The N.C.A.A.’s decision to sanction our program certainly had a negative impact on student-athletes and coaches'.

The NCAA’s insistence on dictating social policy for a few select member institutions intrudes on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees’ autonomy.

They blackmailed a University with a proud history by calling the Chief 'hostile' and 'abusive'.

It appears the Chief was taken Hostage and University of Illinois history Abused.

The day after the University's Board of Trustees agreed to ban the Chief (blackmail paid), the blacklisting (blackmailing) was removed:

“The University of Illinois today announced that Chief Illiniwek will no longer perform at athletic events on the Urbana-Champaign campus after this season’s last men’s home basketball game in Assembly Hall on Feb. 21,” the statement announced. “As a consequence, the university will immediately become eligible to host post-season National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship events.”

Whether one believes the Chief should stay, should go, or should be decided by the University... the Alumni.

Having the NCAA blackmail a University and its sports programs to enforce their their social viewpoints is criminally injust.

To the University Board of Trustees caving to the voice of the PC minority and the fiscal blackmailing from the NCAA; you have shown to be lacking a key character trait often attributed to the Illiniwek: Courage.

If they are also lacking in Honor, maybe the Board of Trustees should do what Florida State University did: pay off the American Indian tribe (in their case the Seminoles) with 80% subsidized education. Is it unreasonable to pay the same to the Peoria tribe who(?) have claimed ownership of the Illini Indian heritage?

Chief Illiniwek supporters say for their part they have tried to find compromise.

Searching for the anti-chief viewpoints against Chief Illiniwek, I was confronted starkly upon ivestigating their position:

I give you only the first two sentences on "Mascot Controversy" and perhaps one can assert why compromise could not be reached: [source Native American House Univ of Illinois http://www.nah.uiuc.edu/letters.htm

"The problem with print and television journalists is that they frame the issue of Chief Illiniwek around the notion of "objectivity" as it tends to be constituted in a so-called balanced journalism. Emerging out of a dominant culture and power of antagonism that elides the play of power in racism and colonialism, journalists uphold a racist, colonialist, misogynist, and heterosexist status quo when assuming two opposite sides: a multi-racial, majority white critical mass who through the lens of critical cultural theory represent a form of homo-social Chief love rooted historically and psychologically in the fear of being emasculated (of losing white-male heterosexist power and privileges), and "the Native Americans," who in local mass media represent chief hate, as well as assimilation."

Their defined position obviously has little to do with the Chief and specifically the Illini tradition and instead about "the dominant culture" and the "power of antagonism" and victim mentality against at a national scale. Racism, colonialism, and white privilege (sic).

Surely if their mission is to abolish abusive racist symbolism in sports, there are more appropriate choices than this University.

I suggest this to the world: Brush your personal preferences and biases aside toward Chief Illiniwek.

Share them if you wish. Post them if you must. But realize this.

It's a Fighting Illini issue. Everyone else should keep their nose out.

Jonathan Korman said...

“Apparently in today's ‘we-are-all victims’ world, if someone else offends me even unintentionally apparently I can demand they stop. As long I am in the ethnic (racial or sexual?) minority.”

That's not some peculiar contemporary decadence, James, that's politeness. If someone offends me, intentionally or no, I am within my rights to ask them to stop. If they do, then I should honor the implicit apology, out of simple courtesy. If instead those folks disregard my protest, then they are now intentionally offending me, and I am right to call them to account for it.

To quote from my own post: “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.”

As for the history of the dispute that you provide, you've basically detailed how anti-Chief activists have campaigned vigorously for their position. That is not a criticism of their position itself.

As for whether people like me should keep our noses out of an U of I issue, I would observe that responding to accusations of racism by saying that outsiders should not intrude on local institutions' autonomy has an extremely ugly history in the United States.