Friday, November 14, 2008

Chief Illiniwek Needs To Stay Gone


I made this photo particularly large so that you could see cultural appropriation in all of its glory.  The University of Illinois ended the use of the chief  as a mascot due to cultural sensitivity issues two years ago.  Unfortunately some of the students have decided that this distasteful tradition needed to be revived.  The Students for Chief Illiniwek, funded the purchase of a new uniform and the chief is set to perform once again this Saturday at an Ohio vs Illinois football game.

According to the Chicago TribuneRoberto Martell, president of Students for Chief Illiniwek, said the group encountered no resistance from the administration. Tom Hardy, a university spokesman, said the students will be allowed to hold the event and that it is not sponsored by the university.
"Chief Illiniwek is a big priority," said Martell, a 20-year-old junior. "It inspired me to be a complete man."

The following is a video of the chief in action at his last official performance.

Cultural appropriation inspired someone to be a man..seriously, WTF. By this definition to be understood as a man, you have to mock another culture; thus those belonging to the culture being ridiculed are relegated to the status of eternal child.  Sounds a little calling a grown black man boy doesn't it? Insisting that an adult person of colour is childlike, is show your bigotry to the world 101.

Professional sports has a history of "othering" indigenous peoples through the mockery of traditional dress and cultural traditions.  We have the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves (complete with the tomahawk chop), and the Chicago Blackhawks.  Somehow the spirit of sportsmanship gives licence to mock Indigenous cultures.

Many tribes have complained about how offensive  this kind of behaviour is only to be told that it is all in good fun, or just good sportsmanship.  It is exactly the same as telling a person of colour that they are too sensitive when they point out racism.

It is almost the end of 2008, the president is a man of colour and the state that he represented still engages in dress up like an Indian. Am I the only one that sees the cruel irony in this?  Yeah, the US is so evolved that it can elect a black man, but not evolved enough to realize that having a man play Native, and dance around a stadium to loud cheers is offensive.  WOW racism really did come to an end November 4th.

During the election there was much talk about the vote being a referendum on race and equality.  What was neglected is that a true conversation never occurred because many races were excluded from the debate.  How often did  you read about Indigenous issues in the newspaper, or hear about them in the mainstream media?  I actively looked for news daily, and I can tell you that information was scarce period. 

We cannot be bothered to make them part of our social conversation and yet at the first opportunity to mock and degrade some are all to happy to wear a headdress and play the fool.  The fact that traditional dress and dance has meaning in aboriginal communities is apparently meaningless because it is more important to honour the tradition of cultural appropriation.  Chief Illiniwek has an 80 year legacy...that would be 80 years of telling Indigenous people that their culture is so meaningless it is not problematic to use it to rally support for a sporting event.

Making sure that Indigenous people are invisible in a debate about race and inequality, and then presenting racist appropriation to support a national hobby only further serves to highlight the degree of racism that they must deal with.  History has been written from the lens of the victor and in the process all of the deep spiritual connections that have been attached to Native ceremonies have been co-opted.   It is only a colonizer that could view this kind of behaviour as acceptable. 

Contrary to what Martell said the best way to feel like a man is to honour all of those around you.  If you have to stand on someone to feel uplifted perhaps you have further to rise than you thought.


Macon D said...

I totally agree with your point here, Renee, and it's great that you're bringing light to this disgusting spectacle. I can just hear all the (99.9% white) arguments in return, especially, "But we ARE honoring Native Americans, can't you see that!?"

I think a lot of the Chief's supporters also see the fight over him as part of a larger battle over "political correctness," and "being told what to do" by "liberals." Losing the "great tradition" of the Chief means to them a loss within what they see as a larger war.

By the way, your article is inaccurate about the circumstances here. The Chief has not been revived to dance in the stadium again, as he did before. He has been retired by the university, along with his official costume; a student group is reviving him, in regalia they paid to have made, and he'll perform after the game in a separate facility that they rented. University officials apparently didn't see fit to, or perhaps couldn't, stop this separate, non-university affiliated event. Or ceremony, or whatever these blind, oblivious racists are calling it.

Queers United said...

What is so disturbing is that people feel so passionately about this that they made a group for it.

Anonymous said...

Just another example of spoiled white kid privilege. Sigh. Racist fucks.

Having said that, I talked with a Native American journalist that I had speak to a group of my high school students (this was in DC, home of the Redskins), and he said he was much more concerned about the institutional racism against indigenous peoples (lack of health care, education, housing, broken treaties, etc.), and that the mascot issue was merely a symptom of this, and an easier target for activists than organizing a movement to address these other issues.

He wasn't faulting them at all, just that the problems are so much deeper than racist, offensive mascots and team names, and that many social justice organizations have also failed to ally themselves with indigenous groups in the U.S. and do any outreach whatsoever. Indigenous peoples are truly "invisible" in my country, even among the Left (which is one big reason why I had him and other journalists and activists based in DC come speak to my students as often as I could).

Ashley said...

I live in Champaign-Urbana (went to UIUC and everything) and it is AMAZING how divisive and distracting this issue is. For 3 years it was pretty much all anyone could talk about; there were editorials in both the student newspaper and the local paper at least twice a month, there are STILL attacks against the professor "responsible" for the Chief's retirement once every few months, and every day I see emblems or messages (often on t-shirts) in support of keeping this mascot. O, excuse me, symbol. Wait, no, respectful honoring of Native American traditions. By white college students.

Thank you for calling attention to this. CU has some interesting stuff going on in it that every now and then crops up on the wider blogosphere, and it's embarrassing how much my town looks like it's full of choads whenever it does (most famously, John Bambenek, our local right-wing douchebag, tried to sue Daily Kos for being partisan.)

Hybrid Hopes said...

Hey Ashley. I moved from CU in 2004... There are lots of good people there, you just have to look hard past the "It's an Illini thing, you wouldn't understand" t-shirt wearing douchebags. I'd like to think that people don't base their thoughts about Champaign-Urbana on those jerks. The "chief" was bad enough, but the arguments people used to support the "chief" were absolutely ridiculous. The whole thing was absolutely ridiculous. The argument that it was a "tradition" and traditions should be left alone? meh. The argument that a white boy dancing around in a boyscout hybrid dance while wearing Lakota gear was somehow respecting and celebrating the fallen Illini people? hells no.

Fannie said...

"I think a lot of the Chief's supporters also see the fight over him as part of a larger battle over 'political correctness,' and 'being told what to do' by 'liberals.' Losing the 'great tradition' of the Chief means to them a loss within what they see as a larger war."

I definitely agree with that sentiment. Since some of these supporters are incapable of seeing how this could possibly be offensive, they see it as some sort of infringement on their own right to not be politically correct.

As an aside, my mother went to a high school in a city not too far from Champaign in the 1970's and the big debate there was over the fact that the school mascot was, seriously(!), the "Chinks." This was in a predominately white city and people there just didn't get that this was offensive. When my mother was a student there, the student body actually voted against changing the mascot to a less offensive term even though a group of Chinese-Americans came to the city to try to get the school to change it.

It wasn't changed until the early 1980s. Even today, you can still find irate alumni who have framed "Chinks" gear in their basements. Why they are mad? Because they lost some sort of PC cultural battle.

Jo said...

Honoring? Do these people know about the Sand Creek Massacre? Do they go and visit places like Pine Ridge Reservation and see the abject poverty and despair? Do they fight to stop the US government from continuing to break treaties made with the Indigenous people of this country? Do they stop the coal and uranium and other corporations from destroying that which is sacred to all Indigenous people, the very earth that birthed us and continues to give us life? How would they feel if, say, someone dressed us Jesus at a sporting event and paraded around? I don't think they'd see much "honoring" in it. They need to face up to what they are doing, be adult about it, and stop using a people as a mascot.

Ojibway Migisi Bineshii said...

Great post Renee! I am going to link this to my blog...

Thank you for making this picture HUGE! As someone who is Native I get very offended by this stuff. Of course I have so many stories that I could share with you about how offensive I get. One time I was at a hot springs resort in Colorado. This little boy was hitting this statue of an Indian and his Dad did not tell him to stop until much after the fact. Anyway, you could imagine that I was furious inside.

The USA is not evolved we have a long way to go, unfortunately.

How many times have I been invisible to the mainstream society? Many times and it is only going improve once people become aware and end things like this as soon as possible. We need to stop stripping the wombs of Native woman and the Earth. People in this country need to open their eyes and make steps towards healing the effects of annihilation and genocide among a whole group of people. The dilemma is that reservation life is isolated intentional poverty and therefore mainstream society will never see what goes on in reservations. They will only know unless they make the steps to do see it and feel the pain with their own bodies and souls. It was intentional by the US government to set up reservations away from the eyes of this society. It is an intentional step that has been made to complete annihilate the Native peoples of this land. It is intentional to strip mine the Earth near these reservations. It is intentional to complete destroy the Native men, women, children and elders of this land.

Anonymous said...


THE PEKIN CHINKS! I'm from that town. You can still see the faded "CHINK RINK" sign over the ice skating rink.

We were the Chinks because we're Pekin, on the same latitude of Peking or Beijing. The argument for the term was that it meant "Chinese worker". Suuure it does.

You can still buy Chink memorabilia all around town, even though we're the Dragons now. People cling to their sports identities because that has become an inherent part of their complete identity. To have a sports team changed or moved is traumatic, like seeing the ice cream parlor torn down for parking. And people create all kinds of excuses as to why their created identity is more important than someone else's cultural identity.

Frankly, I think we should start appropriating our own white identities. How cool would it be to be the Illini Visigoths?

Macon D said...


How about the Fighting Whities?

Macon D said...

Oops--make that the Fightin' Whities.

Fannie said...


LOL, small world. Do I know you?!

And yeah, in some weird warped way, changing the mascot was "traumatic" to some people.

Ashley said...

Hybrid Hopes: I know there's a lot of wonderful people in CU, or I wouldn't have stayed here! That said, I hate how anytime it gets in the news it's about something stupid, or racist, or more often than not both.

Jenn said...

You know, this probably wouldn't even be a problem if we hadn't displaced and disenfranchised Native Americans to the point that little to none of them are present on university campuses, or any place else of "priviledge".

In a sort of sad way, I understand how stupid rich white kids would think this is funny. Their lives are meaningless. They have no culture outside of sports, booze, bigotry and sex. If someone swept in and made a mockery of their lives, they'd be too stupid to tell the difference. You can't satirize vapid university pricks, because their life has reached such lows that over-stating the case is impossible.

They hate themselves, and so they don't understand how anyone could take anything seriously. They're all dead inside. That's the face of university "liberalism". In this context, liberal actually does mean a vacuous pit of stupidity and amorality. By "liberal", they mean that they don't give a shit about anything or anyone, and that the "freedom" to be as privileged, vapid, destructive, and bigoted as they please is their ultimate goal.

It "made him a man" because that is what a man is for him: an empty soul, a cold heart, and a love of all misery.

This charade sickens me on all levels. If I was a police officer and some Native American student ended up maiming the idiots who thought that this was the highest point of their college experience, I might have to "misplace evidence".

AR said...

How would they feel if, say, someone dressed us Jesus at a sporting event and paraded around?

Does it follow that if a group is, in fact, so laid back about even those things which they themselves consider sacred that such mockery would be laughed off with hardly a second thought, that it would be ok for them to do likewise to other people's culture?

mzbitca said...

my roommate in college's home town was right next to the U of I and she was obsessed with the "chief". The funny thing was, she was usually very active and aware of human rights issues and would often correct people for not saying Native American. She also wrote a letter to our sorority headquarters after one of their consults used the "too many chiefs not enough indians" comment.

Yet she still would defend the use of the "chief" til she was blue in the face.

Indigenous Peoples Advocate said...

You would think our "educated" Americans would understand the harm that continuing such a cultural appropriation practice could do. Does this speak to our education system in general, or just the idiots still practicing it?

space said...

"Fightin' whities," "Visigoths" it!

Maybe the Fightin' Whities mascot should carry a musket, wear 1800s military gear, and wave around some dirty blankets. Nah...that would probably be going too far. But the thought amuses me.

Anonymous said...

Indigenous Peoples Advocate- the first thought that came to me upon reading about about all of this was on education. If an accurate, in-depth history of Native American tribes was taught in public schools all around the country, more people would have respect for Native American culture.
Sadly, it feels like Native American culture still has a novelty appeal that is accepted by many people. Because kids aren't taught about the oppression that Native Americans have been subject to since white settlers first came to this continent, they grow up being ignorant and insensitive.
I grew up in southeastern Connecticut- Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos were less than a half an hour away from my town. For most kids I went to high school with, these casinos were really all they associated with Native American culture. Although Foxwoods is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and Mohegan Sun by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, I can tell you first hand that these places are just American casinos that resemble loud, smoky, neon-lit shopping malls- except the decor features fake trees and mechanical wolves. In a lot of ways they're like theme parks- making Native American culture, as I said before, just a novelty.
The only way to end any kind of racism is by being active in educating people. How we could all go about enlightening adults, like these college kids for example, is difficult to determine. But with each generation there is a new opportunity to raise children to be aware, respectful, and accepting.

Lauren said...

I go to Stanford. We used to be the Stanford Indians, until Native American staff and students pointed out that was stupid and offensive, and then we became the Stanford Cardinal (the color, not the bird). This happened almost 40 years ago, in 1972, but there are still students who think we should switch back to being the Indians because "it's tradition."

First of all, how can it be your tradition if you weren't even born yet when it was happening? Second of all, how can you think that your superficial sports tradition is more important than actual cultural tradition, especially when it's a tradition you weren't even alive for.

fan said...

"How would they feel if, say, someone dressed us Jesus at a sporting event and paraded around?

Does it follow that if a group is, in fact, so laid back about even those things which they themselves consider sacred that such mockery would be laughed off with hardly a second thought, that it would be ok for them to do likewise to other people's culture? "

I may actually agree with this. It seems to me that a common idea in college is that equality means everyone is made fun of equally. All religions, colors, races, nationalities are equally available to be torn down and mocked. It is the Family Guy and South Park culture of "If it can move, make fun of it. If it can't move, make fun of that too."