Hail to the Chief? (4/6/01)

About a month and a half ago, I had the chance to attend a panel discussion on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek. There’s been quite some debate for a few years over replacing the mascot, citing racial insensitivity. I went to the discussion partially because of discussion on our own campus about the Crusader, and partially because I was hoping for some sort of revelation as to why people care so deeply about mascots.

See, the number one item on my list of things not to worry about has pretty much always been school spirit. High school didn’t help – even though we were supposed to be “the Rebels,” until my junior year, our mascot was a guy in a giant chicken suit. No, I have no idea why. Everyone hated the mascot with a passion, and the entire football team used to beat up the poor guy after both the Homecoming assembly and the Homecoming game, even if they won. This is one reason I don’t really “get” the whole Crusader thing. Another is that the whole thing happened a couple of centuries ago, and I really can’t understand holding a grudge for that long.

On that account, the anti-Chief Illiniwek seem to be a little more on-target. It’s not like American Indians are suddenly leading oppression-free lives because the white people in power finally realized that we’ve been treating them pretty cruddy since we got here. As a friend told me once, “it sucks to be indigenous.” But after attending the panel discussion and doing a little more research on my own, I’m a little disillusioned about the pure, sensitive, anti-racist standpoint of the anti-Chief Illiniwek faction.

The first warning flag was when a girl on the panel complained that enrollment of American Indians at UIUC was really low because the school so clearly displays its racial insensitivity. Gee, this may be me, but I would assume the devastating rates of poverty, unemployment and alcoholism on reservations might have more to do with low college enrollment rates. I don’t support the use of harmful media stereotypes, but if your concentration on ideological issues blinds you to the pressing physical and financial concerns of the people you’re trying to defend, it’s time to reexamine your priorities.

The other thing that bothers me about this entire issue is that being offended on the behalf of others strikes me as being potentially dangerous in terms of censorship. In this case, the Peoria tribe – the descendants of the Illini tribe – have expressed their official approval of Chief Illiniwek. About 75 percent of American Indians surveyed were supporters of keeping the mascot. It seems scarily paternalistic to me to assume the supposedly wronged parties are simply not aware of the damage caused by the mascot.

There are other problems, as well – like the inability of the anti-Chief Illiniwek forces to offer a workable compromise. The board of directors claims that keeping the mascot is their final word on the subject. It will be interesting to see how much of a precedent this proves to be for our own issues here at Valpo.

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