The Sad Resurrection of Chief Illiniwek
Last weekend an unfortunate figure returned to the
A victory 20 years in the making was overturned when
Those whose heart is with the dancing chief were thrilled, calling Homecoming "a victory parade." The organization Students for Chief Illini issued a statement saying that the original policy was a "slap in the face to people in the community to say you can't support your symbol." In an irony that could only be found in the bizarre lexicon of university political correctness, the group uses the world "symbol" instead of "mascot" because the term "mascot" is offensive to Chief Illiniwek. Keep in mind, that there never was a Chief Illiniwek. No one with that name ever existed. His costume is not in keeping with anything the Illini tribe ever wore and the dance at halftime was created in 1926 by the Boy Scouts. But by all means support such a noble symbol.
The Chief was certainly celebrated at Homecoming. No counter protestors were reported and thousands of attendees wore Chief regalia. Although no Native American organizations support the Chief, he was celebrated lustily. The same students and alumni that clamor for the Chief as a symbol of Native American nobility, put far more time and energy into a fictional chief than aiding actual Native Americans. Students of Native American descent are a mere 0.2% of the overall student population, and 0.1% of the faculty. "Honoring" Native Americans is confined to a white guy in buckskin pants and feathers (only whites have portrayed the Chief throughout it's 81-year history).
There was little said about the fact that while Chief Illiniwek never existed, the Illini tribe did. They were torn apart, forcibly removed so schools like
Since there is nothing honorable about resurrecting the Chief, is it then an issue of freedom of speech? In a letter to Chancellor Herman, professor Antonia Darder wrote, "If a float maker wants to use KKK imagery or a noose hanging from a tree on a homecoming float, is this now also acceptable under the auspices of 'free expression?' Or if a float maker wants to use images of people copulating or nude participants on a float, would this also be accepted as the freedom of personal expression? And if not, why not? Certainly if public nudity is considered immoral or at least inappropriate, why not public racism?" This is the climate in which Herman resurrects the Chief.
The latest in this marathon battle of memory, history, and the role of sports in this process comes two weeks after the death of Native American activist and longtime leader of the American Indian Movement, Vernon Bellecourt. Bellecourt spent years as a thorn in the side of organizations like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, demanding that they change their mascots. He once said, "Our detractors always say, 'We are honoring you.' It's not an honor. In whose honor, we have to ask. Beginning with the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, about 16 million of us were wiped out, including whole villages in
To other teams with Indian nicknames and to their fans, he said, "No more chicken feathers ... No more paint on faces. The chop stops here." Maybe the
[Dave Zirin is the author of the new book "Welcome to the Terrordome:" with an intro by Chuck D (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to http://zirin.com/edgeofsports/?p=subscribe&id=1. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org]