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 http://www.apa.org/releases/ResAmIndianMascots.pdf

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.