Chief Illiniwek needs to be discontinued

Chief Illiniwek
I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent post regarding Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois. I published my entry and then left town for a weekend at the Oregon coast. When I returned home, there were 4 comments on my post entitled “Chief Illiniwek needs to stop dancing.” The comments were fairly lengthy and by new readers. Instead of commenting on the original post, I decided that it would be worthwhile if I created a new post with more of my thoughts/feelings/etc.

PAgent asked a great question:

Is it the fact that the Chief is typically portrayed by a white student the aspect that is offensive? Then why not say so explicitly?

I did some research on Chief Illiniwek. Apparently, Chief Illiniwek has been portrayed by non-Native American students at the University of Illinois since 1926. Chief Illiniwek is offensive because the Chief represents a stereotype. There are less than 150 Native Americans who attend the University of Illinois. Chief Illiniwek has been portrayed mostly by white men. It’s like telling the Native Americans and anyone else at the University of Illinois that inside every Native American is a white man. For more information on stereotypes, othering, and assimilation please read Suzanne Pharr’s “The Common Elements of Oppressions.” I tend to link to it a lot because I feel that it’s very useful/informative.

By the way, the Native American House at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the American Indian Studies faculty at the University of Illinois have this to say about Chief Illiniwek:

The Native American House at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides a place where students, faculty, staff, and community members may increase their knowledge and understanding of the histories of American Indian peoples and their cultures, both past and present. Part of this understanding rests on the ability to critique and set aside images that confine the perception of an entire people to a limited and narrow existence. Stereotypical images, negative or positive, are barriers to understanding and seriously miseducate the public about Native Americans. Therefore, the Native American House and American Indian Studies faculty insist that the University of Illinois Board of Trustees discontinue the use of ‘chief illiniwek’ in name, performance, and symbol.

In October of 2005, the American Psychological Association released a statement regarding the use of Native American mascots:

The American Psychological Association is calling for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations, the Association announced today.

APA’s action, approved by the Association’s Council of Representatives, is based on a growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.

“The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in school and university athletic programs in particularly troubling,” says APA President, Ronald F. Levant, EdD. “Schools and universities are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and, too often, insulting images of American Indians. And these negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”
Full text of the resolution can be found at

PAgent finished his comment with this statement:

I can’t help but wonder if this is another step toward the generalization that ANY depiction of a Native North American is offensive, regardless of content or context.

How is the depiction of a Native American in any content or context different than white folks in blackface or yellowface? I am offended by Chief Illiniwek because it is racist and stereotypical. Ever since Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, things have not been good for indigenous folks. White folks have tried to exterminate and assimilate Native Americans in this country since 1492. The debate over whether or not the Chief is offensive represents another incident in which the dominant majority is trying to tell a historically oppressed group how to feel.

Michael Smith commented on the issue of political correctness:

And just how far should we go to ban the “offensive” use of native symbols in the name of political correctness?

The term political correctness or “pc” is usually brought out by a member of the dominant paradigm as a means of diluting conversations on social justice and equity. I do not feel that it is morally correct to reduce Native Americans to a racist caricature and then to dismiss the conversation by relegating it to the bowels of political correctness. I feel that we should go “all the way” when it comes to banning the use of native symbolism that is not sanctioned by native peoples. (Yes, I realize that there have been native folks who are pro-chief, please go back and read Pharr’s words on tokenism and assimilation.)

Lyn had this to say:

The court struck a blow for freedom from the tyranny of the few…I really don’t care if a white kid, green kid or whatever portrays the fictional character of Chief Illiniwek. I don’t care if the dance is too authentic or not authentic enough…It doesn’t have to measure up to all of these standards set by the aggrieved group…The idea that only the feelings of actual Native Americans should count on this issue is backassed since it is supposedly the image of Native Americans as perceived by the larger population that is at stake her. The larger population overwhelming sees the Chief as a positive figure. Let freedom of expression win.

I can’t help but laugh and cry at the same time… Yes, the tyranny of Native Americans and their allies is well documented. (Please note that sarcasm is set to ludicrous and plaid.) I usually try to approach my blog commentors with a dose of compassion and charity, but this is really stretching me. Lyn, us white folks need to sit in a room and talk about our privilege for a bit.

Whew, I have almost made it to the last commentor — Erik. Erik, please join me and Lyn in the room where we will discuss our white privilege. Bring water and food. It’s going to be a while.

In closing, I would like to urge the University of Illinois to listen to the Native American House and the faculty of the American Indian Studies Department. UIUC’s non-discrimination statement states that:

The commitment of the University of Illinois to the most fundamental principles of academic freedom, equality of opportunity, and human dignity requires that decisions involving students and employees be based on merit and be free from invidious discrimination in all its forms.

The University of Illinois will not engage in discrimination or harassment against any person because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, disability, sexual orientation including gender identity, unfavorable discharge from the military or status as a protected veteran and will comply with all federal and state nondiscrimination, equal opportunity and affirmative action laws, orders and regulations. This nondiscrimination policy applies to admissions, employment, access to and treatment in the University programs and activities.

It is my hope that the University of Illinois will stop engaging in the oppression of Native Americans. I feel that the depiction and defense of Chief Illiniwek is morally reprehensible.

  • Vic

    It appears that high schools and universities are on the right path to eliminating racist imagery tied with their team names. However, good luck trying to have the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, and Cleveland Indians, and other affiliates in the minor league levels of all professional sports with Native-American connotations abandon their team names, mascots, and logos. Money talks, and those organizations take their morning dips in pools filled with money (like Uncle Scrooge did in Duck Tales :D ).

  • Very thoughtful and thorough post, Eric. Keep up your good work.

  • @ Vic,
    Thanks for commenting! There are still quite a few schools who haven’t addressed the issue. I attended Indian Hills Community College (the sports teams were the “Warriors” and if I ever get enough money to fill a coffee cup, I will let IHCC know that my money is not going to be donated until they change their name.

    @ Faris,
    Thanks! I saw the pics of your birthday party. You age with style! :-)

  • Sorry I haven’t checked back sooner. I know I may seem a bit thick on this issue, but I think it genuinely raises some interesting questions.

    If it is the fact that the Chief is portrayed by a white man that is the issue, then if he was portrayed by a Native American, would he be acceptable? What if he wasn’t a plains Indian? What if he was a Seminole? Would THAT be offensive?

    If it’s the clothing, which incorporates many aspects of actual Indian costume, then what would be appropriate clothing?

    My point is this, we currently have mascots that are Trojans, Spartans, Boilermakers, Fighting Irish, and many other archetypical (or even stereotypical) characters. Should they ALL be banned? Is the mere representation of a human being now offensive? Because someone will always be offended, no matter how carefully you choose your depiction.

    I have been a bit of a student of, and have had an appreciation for, the depth and sophistication of the cultures that existed here before the influx of Europeans, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. I would hate to see attitudes shift to the point that even well-meaning depictions of Native Americans become forbidden, because they don’t pass some ambiguous litmus test that has more to do with the INTENT of the depiction than the details of the depiction itself.

  • The fact that none of the Chief Illiniwek’s at UIUC have been Native American is a fundamental piece of the Chief Illiniwek problem.

    The Seminole Tribe of Florida has publicly approved of FSU’s use of “Seminoles.” The situation with UIUC’s Chief Illiniwek is different in that the remaining remnants of the Illiniwek’s (in Oklahoma) do not approve of Chief Illiniwek and have deemed it to be offensive.

    Trojans/Spartans represent peoples who never inhabited the United States nor were they systematically murdered, raped, sterilized, etc. by the US government.

    Boilermakers, the mascot at Purdue, is not offensive because it does not represent a group of peoples who have been historically marginalized since 1492.

    The Fighting Irish at Notre Dame almost always comes up at some time during a discussion about the use of Native American imagery for sports mascots. First of all, the Notre Dame mascot is a leprechaun which is a fictional character. Second, this is not an apples to apples comparison. People of Irish descent in this country benefit from the unearned advantages of white privilege and institutional power. Native Americans have been subjected to all sorts of awfulness in this country. It all comes down to institutional power. One of the definitions of racism is prejudice + power. In the Chief Illiniwek case, UIUC has huge amounts of institutional power.

    A common theme in your writings is “depiction.” I think that it is wrong for white folks to depict people of color. An example of white’s depicting folks of color can be found in the use of blackface or yellowface. White folks have depicted Native Americans as ruthless savages in tv and movies. These depictions create stereotypes which shape the attitudes of the dominant paradigm group.

    I’m glad you have asked questions.

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  • G-Dub

    The University of Illinois should stop using Chief Illiniwek. I suggest they change their name to the Pioneers.

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  • Balertwine

    Few people know this, but I represent the hunter-gatherers of the world.

    Our happy hunting grounds have disappeared everywhere from Lapland to
    New Guinea to the greater Mississippi River Basin. The only reason you cry
    about the disappearing Rain Forest is because you sit where my forest once was.

    Some blame this usurpation of cultures on the cultivation of wheat and the
    domestication of the cow; others lay blame squarely in the hands of the
    Reagan/Bush trickle-down economic theorists. I prefer to simply
    blame you.

    I should spear every one of you smartypants urban technologists,
    sitting there at play at your computers, where my people once felled
    the wooly mammoth and the mighty buffalo.

    The Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Slavs, none of them should have
    wandered north from Mesopotamia, only to befoul every shore they
    set foot upon. Birthplace of Civilization my ass! We the people of the earth,
    content to track the wild elk and take only what we need, who rarely
    engaged in cannibalism, we were the meek even before they had a
    word for meek.

    We refused to develop an alphabet not because we were stupid,
    but because we knew what it would lead to.

    First you idiots started planting seeds. One thing led to another, and
    your populations grew, as you became fat and lazy, no longer lean
    from the hunt. Then you started building permanent structures, and
    forgot all about the need to sleep in trees to avoid the predators at
    night. Then you built factories and paved our trails with asphalt, and
    dirtied the air like a thousand exploding volcanoes every day.

    Please block yourselves from each other’s mailing lists, open that
    opening in the wall you call “window,” and throw your computer out.
    Return to the land, kill an antelope, rip its flesh from the bone, and
    pencil deep intellectual thoughts on the ceilings of your caves with a
    charred stick.

    Yes, I know, some of you vegetarians will wither and starve, refusing to eat
    the gizzards offered you, but this is our law — Nature’s law of
    natural selection, and only the brave will survive. This is
    why they call us Braves. Why they call others of us Eskimos,
    Aborigines, Laplanders, and Zulus, we don’t know, and
    we don’t care. We just know that with proper treatment, we can
    shrink your heads down for use as cute decorations on our coffee tables.

    Hunters and gatherers of the world, unite!

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  • Jordan

    Don’t you just seem incredibly pedantic in this post with your “Us white folk” and acerbic sarcasm. Why don’t you stop enabling hypersensitive non-natives and look at the schools iconic history and symbolism. I know that this view is probably seen as foolish because we tend to value peoples’s feelings over nostaligia in this post-civil rights era, but this school was nicknamed after the Illini tribe and subsequently the fictitious Chief Illiniwek. As a student of the school and a proud citizen of Illinois my entire life I wish the Chief would have stayed, and I wish people would stop taking ever off-color costume or practice and instantly assume it has racist roots. Frankly, I do not believe this is true. Schools like Stanford had embarrassing caricatures of Native Americans and the Washington Redskins’s nickname is practically a racial slur. Illinois’s Chief logo and Figthing Illini nickname is neither, and instead both enbody the spirit and passion of the school, its students and its fans. Chief Illiniwek is fictitious, and any mature or rational adult understands that the modern Native American may no longer roam the American grasslands in animal hides and headdresses. People have enough common sense to not let such ridiculous presuppositions affect them. This is why the “retiring” of the Chief was a rash decision.