Enough Dancing Around the Chief Issue

0 Flares Filament.io 0 Flares ×

The Public i offers its readers the two articles that follow on the issue of the Chief.Usually the
paper does not publish two articles on the same subject in the same issue. Because of the
importance of the issue locally and nationally, because Chancellor Cantor and Trustee Carroll
have been so badly pilloried by our commercial daily paper, and because these articles
take two very different approaches to the subject, we are devoting space in this double issue
to them both. David Prochaska’s article is interpretive in nature, analyzing the meaning of
the Chief to proponents and opponents within our community. Jeremy Engels’s article analyzes
the meaning of the Chief within the context of the historical rhetoric and actions of our
nation’s (white) leaders. We believe that both of them add depth to the discussion of the
appropriateness of a dominant group presuming to express the nature of a group that has
been dominated, and in this case subjected to genocide.

A “Tradition” of Adoration?

 ,  , a new day for
the University of Illinois could be imagined: a
day without the Chief as mascot. However, as
we all know, Frances Carroll withdrew her resolution,
and the Chief lives on, until at least
March or July when the Board of Trustees will
again discuss the issue. The point of this article
is not to recount the history of the Chief;
this has been done admirably by Carol Spindel
and David Prochaska. The point is, rather,
to offer an honest assessment of the arguments
made by both proponents and opponents
with the hope of offering a basis for further
dialogue about the Chief.
The main argument gracing countless editorials
made in support of the Chief is a nebulous
appeal to “tradition.” Now, any good
student of democratic deliberation could
simply dismiss this argument away as a fallacy,
a logical blunder. Tradition, in and of
itself, is not an adequate justification for anything.
To hang one’s argument on the banner
of tradition is an appeal to tradition fallacy.
Even a brief glance at U.S. history demonstrates
this. It was tradition for many years in
the United States to keep a large section of the
population in bondage as slaves and only
three-fifths a person. This tradition was overturned
by Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation
Proclamation, but segregation continued well
into the twentieth century. An appeal to traditions
of colonizing and enslaving African
Americans, like the Ku Klux Klan makes, as a
justification for continued segregation
should seem ludicrous, unwarranted,
absolutely absurd. So, too, should an appeal
to the tradition of the infamous “rule of
thumb” custom in nineteenth century America,
by which it was condoned for a husband
to beat his wife with a stick no wider than the
diameter of his thumb. At one time, however,
these traditions were not absurd. We are living
in a similar time with traditions related to
Native Americans.
This is not to argue that students at the
University of Illinois consciously desire to
dehumanize Native Americans. Perhaps some
do, but by and large the students here are
concerned, passionate defenders of a tradition
they believe is not racist but righteous.
Almost always, these students have good
intentions. However, disregarding their
intentions, we cannot ignore the grave fact
the Chief dehumanizes Native Americans, as
Charlene Teeters was quoted as arguing in the
October 17, 2003 The Paper: “When people
call us ‘chief, brave, squaw or redskin’ they are
trying to dehumanize us. We are not names
people have given to us. We are human
beings.”Here, we find the main argument for
retiring the Chief. As Frederick Hoxie, acting
director of the Native American Studies Program
on campus, points out, the Peoria tribe,
direct descendents of local tribes, have
requested the Chief be retired. Thus the Chief
does not honor these Native Americans.
Shouldn’t we listen to their objections?
Of course, as one who has faith in democracy,
I believe that if we do listen, support will
wane. Supporters of democracy endear themselves
to the almost certainly naive belief that
the best argument will win out. As we have
seen with the Board of Trustee’s vote on
November 13, having a good argument is not
enough just by itself. Politics and politicking,
money and manipulation: these are the conditions
of an embedded power we
must acknowledge. Nevertheless,
I still believe a good argument,
though not sufficient,
is a necessary step towards
change. To make such an
argument, I will turn to
history. The Chief is a
deeply historical issue,
and it should be debated as
such. Here we must ask,
“what does this tradition
stand for?” because it is woefully
obvious that supporters of the Chief
lack historical perspective on the issue.
To understand Native American history in
North America, we must understand that
early white Americans saw themselves as colonizers
of the whole, vast continent. Thomas
Jefferson, third president and principle architect
of the Northwest Ordinance of
1787which was the United States’ first in a
long line of imperial documents (today’s
variants being NAFTA and FTAA) argued, in
a November 24, 1801 letter to James Monroe
(America’s fifth President) that it was destiny
for white men to multiply and “cover the
whole northern, if not southern continent,
with a people speaking the same language,
governed in similar forms, and by similar
laws; nor can we contemplate with any satisfaction
either blot or mixture on that surface.”
The blots and mixtures were the hated
Native Americans. As a British traveler in
1784 muttered in disbelief: “The white Americans
have the most rancorous antipathy to
the whole race of Indians: and nothing is
more common than to hear them talk of
extirpating them totally from the face of the
earth, men, women, and children.” Those
Americans who did not hate Indians still
dehumanized them by arguing their inferiority.
Our stuffy second President, John Adams,
dehumanized Native Americans in an April
11, 1805 letter to Benjamin Rush, arguing
that Indians “by disposition” are cruel and
blood-thirsty, and that “Negroes, Indians, and
Kaffrarians cannot bear democracy any more
than Bonaparte and Talleyrand.”
Most troublesome about these Presidential
statements is their canonization in American
policy toward Native Americans. Everyone
knows about Andrew Jackson’s Indian
Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears
abused Cherokees walked in 1838. Yet few
know that one of the Declaration of Independence’s
charges against King George III was
blatantly dehumanizing to Native Americans:
“He has excited domestic insurrections
amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on
the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless
Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an
undistinguished destruction of the ages,
sexes, and conditions.” This is the same document
that is held up as the American beacon
of freedom: “We hold these truths to be selfevident,
that all men are created equal.” But
we are not all equal, and we never were, as the
first Secretary ofWar under the Constitution,
Henry Knox, argued in his report of June 15,
1789, to the United States Congress. This
report advised President Washington about
conducting diplomatic relations with Native
“When it shall be considered that the Indians
derive their subsistence chiefly by hunting,
and that, according to fixed principles,
their population is in proportion to the facility
with which they procure their food, it
would most probably be found that the
expulsion or destruction of the Indian tribes
have nearly the same effect: for if they are
removed from the usual hunting grounds,
they must necessarily encroach on the hunting
grounds of anther tribe, who will
not suffer the encroachment with
impunity. Hence, they destroy
each other.”
We must remember that
this is the historical context
in which Native
Americans have existed in
the United States. It
would obviously be disrespectful
to honor a mascot
or symbol, such as the Confederate
Flag, reminding African
Americans of their past as slaves. However,
it is less obviously disrespectful to sanction
a mascot that that mocks Native Americans
because many of us do not know our
history well enough to know that it does this.
Hopefully this will change. If we let the nasty,
brutish moments of American history inform
our arguments, they will clearly point to one
solution: retire the Chief.
For a histoy of the Chief, see:
Carol Spindel, Dancing at Halftime: Sports
and the Controversy over American Indian
Mascots (New York: New York University
Press, 2000).
Illiniwek, Again

Jeremy Engels is a graduate
student in the
department of Speech
Communication at the
University of Illinois.
He is interested the historical
emergence of
democracy in America
and also the way that Americans today
argue and enact democracy.

Illiniwek, Again

   over Board of Trustee
Frances Carroll submitting then withdrawing
her resolution to get rid of Chief Illiniwek
(but not the “Fighting Illini”) has put
the ongoing controversy back on the front
burner of political discussion. No new
arguments have been heard, but what has
changed is the particularly venomous personal
attacks on University of Illinois
Chancellor Nancy Cantor. Here I wish to
make two points.
In the first place, one of the key features
of the pro- versus anti-Chief Illiniwek
debate over the last 15 years is the extent to
which both sides talk past one another.
“Honored symbol,” say pro-Chiefers;
“racist mascot,” say those on the other side.
How can Chief Illiniwek be both a “positive”
and “negative” representation, positive
for some, negative for others? Look at it
this way. Chief supporters focus on the specific
“text” of the Chief—the dance—while
opponents situate the Chief in a larger
native American context, pointing out that
the Chief performs a secular dance routine
but in primarily religious regalia, that the
Chief wears Plains Indian Sioux clothing in
former Woodlands Indian Illiniwek country.
If the Chief “text”—the halftime
dance—is viewed superficially, in isolation,
then it may seem at first that it is a positive
not negative representation, neither
humorous nor caricatural but solemn, serious.
But this is erroneous.
Here precisely is where paying closer
attention to context helps clarify matters. A
single, isolated synchronic snapshot of the
Chief may be seen as “positive,” but tracing
changes over time, diachronically, in the
Chief image reveals a much more “negative”
context—just look at Illio, the University
yearbook, year by year since the 1920s.
In recent years pro-Chief forces spearheaded
by the University have had to engage in
more or less continuous “damage control.”
The orange and blue block “I” has been
banned from the Chief’s chin. In 1989
Squanto—depicted as a cartoon caricature
with a hooked nose, feathers in his headband
and holding a soil augur—was
“retired” as the Agronomy Department
logo. By 1990 cheerleaders and fans were
prohibited from wearing “warpaint” at
games. In 1991 the Chief was banned from
making appearances in the Homecoming
Parade and pep rally. In 1993 Chief Illiniwek
was banned from use on Homecoming
parade floats. That the Chief is mutable has
also effectively undermined the fewer but
still-heard pro-Chief claims to Native
American “authenticity.”
Now put the Chief ’s halftime dance—
the text—in the larger context of “playing
Indian.” Boy Scouts, Eagle Scouts, Order of
the Arrow, Order of Red Men, Campfire
Girls,Woodcraft, Boston Tea Party.What is
“playing Indian,”“playing native” all about?
It is about play, yes, in the sense of dressing
up, masquerade. But it is also about appropriation,
in the sense of taking on another’s
identity. The implication here is speaking
for another, silencing the personal expression
of another. And make no mistake
about it: such appropriation is predicated
on power, the power to appropriate; power
is the necessary prerequisite for appropriation.
Cultural appropriation of this sort—
white guys presuming to speak for native
Americans—is often counterpart to physical
expropriation. When the “Chief” was
invented in the 1920s, the final defeats of
Native Americans and the closing of the
frontier were still recent history. With the
threat of the “savage” Indian eliminated, it
became possible to express imperialist nostalgia
for the “vanishing Indian.”
When is playing Chief Illiniwek mimicry
and culturally derogatory, and when is it,
if ever, imitation, the sincerest form of flattery?
Consider the Koshares described by Philip Deloria. The Boy Scout Koshare troop of La Junta, Colorado performed Indian
dances, made replicas of Indian material culture, and built a museum for Indian cultural
objects. In 1953 they prepared costumes needed to perform the Zuni Shalako dance.
The Zunis protested the Koshares’ plans. “After visiting the Koshare kiva, however, the
Zuni people changed their minds. They decided that the scouts’ precisely copied Shalakos
were authentic and real, and they took the masks back to Zuni and built a special
kiva for them” (Deloria, Playing Indian, 152). Contrast this with the scene in Jay Rosenstein’s
film In Whose Honor? (1996) in which the camera zooms in and pans across a
woman at a pre-game tailgate party who is wearing a plethora of Chief paraphernalia—
buttons, earrings and the like. She enumerates her various Chief gewgaws, ends by
pointing to “my Chief earrings here,” and not missing a beat continues, “I wear the Chief
in respect.” In short, she is so bound up in the expression of her identity in the guise of
the Chief that it is clearly rich and meaningful for her, but the rights of historically subjugated
native Americans to express themselves trump her right to play Indian.
The second point I want to make takes the form of an observation: in the heart of the
heart of Chief Illiniwek country, there is literally nothing, a historical absence, a nonperson.
Chief Illiniwek is a sign without a historical referent, a freefloating signifier in a
prairie-flat land wiped clean, erased of Native Americans since the early 1800s. What
then is going on when Chief Illiniwek is elaborated and articulated to the extent it is,
when as many people get as worked up about it as happens in this case, when defense of
the Chief goes to the extremes of defensiveness that it does here? Although pro-Chiefers
want to reduce the controversy to a trivial—for them—matter of “political correctness”
and exorcise it thereby, their actions in fact suggest that the Chief is a huge deal. Look in
the phonebook and count the number of Chief-themed business names. Add up the
number of ad slogans featuring the Chief. Calculate how big a store it would take to
stock all the kinds of Chief paraphernalia marketed over the years from baby bottles to
boxer shorts to toilet paper.
Far from a superficial issue of political correctness, Chief Illiniwek raises fundamental
questions about power, individual expression, and especially identity.About the identity
of those of us who live in Champaign-Urbana, but also in the surrounding region
and beyond. About how a community is imagined, about who does and does not count
as a member of a community. In policing the borders between those who agree with
them and those who do not, pro-Chief supporters articulate who is and who is not a
member of their imagined community. Border patrol takes the form of pitting an “us”
against a “them.” Opponents of the Chief are regularly termed “foreigners” and “outsiders,”
people who come in from an elsewhere to tell an “us” what to do. As outsiders,
they just do not understand “our” Chief, say Chief supporters, yet they are trying to take
something away from “us.”We heard this line repeated again during the recent controversy
over the Board of Trustees resolution, but it has been a constant reaction, a reflex
defense. Defense: the whole tone here is defensive, as if the community were under
attack, under siege, threatened with imminent invasion. This is why the us vs. them
rhetoric is so shrill: because it matters so much.

David Prochaska is a professor in the U of I’s
History Department. This article is based on
his essay, “At Home in Illinois: Presence of
Chief Illiniwek, Absence of Native Americans,”
pp. 157-185 in Charles Springwood
and Richard King, eds., Team Spirits: The
Native American Mascots Controversy (University
of Nebraska Press, 2001).

This entry was posted in Human Rights, Indigenous. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.