Chief Illiniwek

by Mitakuye Oyasin

Once again, a big debate is taking place in Illinois over the use of Chief Illiniwek as a half-time entertainer at the University's football and basketball games. The board of trustees is holding firm to its position to keep the Chief while the senate has voted in favor of an advisory resolution to retire the Chief.

In spite of the efforts by the University to dispel criticism of the Chief as a racist stereotype by calling it an official symbol instead of a mascot, several faculty members have criticized the Chief as so inaccurate, culturally and historically, that it interferes with their teaching.

Let's look at that for a moment. Suppose they dressed the Chief in authentic Illiniwek gear instead of his Sioux outfit. And suppose they had him dance as the Illiniwek once danced, a rather difficult assignment since the Illini disappeared in the mid-1700's, overrun by other tribes moving into the area to escape the white invaders. The Illini were more farmers than fighters, and they didn't have the numbers to offer strong resistance.

But think about it. With the Chief accurately presenting a corn dance from the pages of Illini history, the University football and basketball teams could be called the "Farming Illini." Think of the terror they would strike in the hearts of their opponents!

Arguing for historical accuracy has another drawback. I am reminded of the degrading treatment of many Sioux in the Wild West shows that toured the United States and Europe from 1883 to 1916. Buffalo Bill Cody hired Indians to chase wagon trains and fight mock battles in what could only be described as circus exploitation of "savage" Indian life.

It was a young Sioux called Black Elk who, years later, recalled his reasons for going with Buffalo Bill on an early tour: "Maybe if I could see the great world of the Wasichu, I could understand how to bring the sacred hoop [of my people] together and make the tree to bloom again at the center of it.... I know now that this was foolish, but I was young and in despair."

It was while the show was in England that he recalls, "One day we were told that Majesty was coming. I did not know what that was at first, but I learned afterward. It was Grandmother England (Queen Victoria), who owned Grandmother's Land [Canada] where we lived after the Wasichus murdered Crazy Horse....

"Sometimes we had to shoot in the show, but this time we did not shoot at all. We danced and sang.... After we had danced, she spoke to us. She said something like this: 'I am sixty seven years old. All over the world I have seen all kinds of people; but today I have seen the best-looking people I know. If you belonged to me, I would not let them take you around in a show like this.' She said other good things too....

"We liked Grandmother England, because we could see that she was a fine woman, and she was good to us. Maybe if she had been our Grandmother, it would have been better for our people."

Historical accuracy was also sought by another European audience who wanted to see an Indian kill and butcher a buffalo. Everything went as you would expect, and the crowd was pleased, even when the Indian gorged himself on the bloody heart of the now dead buffalo. And when he had had his fill, he walked to the edge of the enclosure where this spectacle had taken place, squatted down in full view of his audience, and relieved himself. That was his answer to the demands of "civilized" people for an "authentic and realistic" depiction of "savage" Indian life.

Whether Chief Illiniwek remains or is retired as the symbol of the University of Illnois is of little import to me, personally. On the other hand, it does bother some Native Americans, and it seems to be a problem for some other people, whatever their reasons. Maybe, then, it is time to look at a bigger issue. If your behavior is offensive to others, no matter how few, then this might be an opportunity to show concern for others.

The university is supposed to be, after all, an institution of higher learning.

Posted to Zephyr Online March 19, 1998
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