An Honored Tradition

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Recently, University of Illinois Board of Trustees chairman
Lawrence Eppley announced that as of February 21st
2007, the U of I team mascot called ‘chief illiniwek” would
cease to perform at half-time events.
To anyone who is unaware of the controversy surrounding
this figure, this sounds like a relatively unimportant
bit of trivia, just another boardroom maneuver in the
giant corporate game that college athletics has become.
But this is, in fact, a fairly big deal. Who or what was
‘the chief’?
At a halftime performance, a student donned a costume
that was designed to give the audience the impression that
he portrayed an ‘Indian Chief.” He then did a stylized
dance. This ‘chief” was said to represent the ‘spirit” of the
University; to memorialize the Native people who used to
live here, and to portray “strength, bravery, truthfulness,
courage, and dignity.“
Now if you have lived in the United States for awhile,
you won’t think to ask the next logical question. It probably
won’t even occur to you. But for those not steeped in
classic American traditions, myths, and legends, your next
question will likely be: ‘so what is it about this character
that represents those qualities anyway?’
How does the performance described above—or any of
it’s various permutations and iterations over the succeeding
81 years — manage to captivate an audience of disparate
ages, genders, and socioeconomic situations, and leave
them all with at least some degree of the same impression
about who ‘the chief” is, and what he represents?
If you’ve read any books, watched any movies, television
shows, or cartoons; if you were ever a Boy Scout; if you
attended any schools in this country in the last 100 years
or so, you will know as soon as you look at him, that a person
who is dressed in this way is supposed to be an Indian
Chief. You will also ‘know” that Indians were wise, spiritual,
dignified, courageous and so on.
Just by donning his outfit, the performer doesn’t automatically
assume the full measure of his role however. For
the transaction to be complete, there must be a number of
unspoken agreements already in place, so that this wouldbe
Indian will be seen as the embodiment of all the qualities
I just mentioned.
The most important agreement of course concerns the
outfit itself. It’s changed a bit over the years, but the consistent
requirements for it have always been and must always
be such, that the greatest number of people possible will recognize
it as something an ‘Indian Chief” would wear. Anything
else, however accurate in its own way, wouldn’t do.
That his ‘war paint” demonstrates a lack of understanding
about the way native people used face paints, and why
and when they did so; that his outfit—indisputably
authentic though it may be in and of itself — is representative
of a people that never lived in this area; that his dance
only vaguely resembles the Fancy Dance it’s supposed to
be based on, and that his movements and regalia incorporate
elements of religious significance without any attempt
to contextualize the way they are interspersed with other
things utilized strictly for their entertainment value alone
is all, actually, beside the point.
The only thing that matters is that the greatest possible
number of people understand and know without being
told, that by putting this costume on, and jumping around
the way he does, the person portraying ‘the chief” assumes
all of the relevant characteristics of an American Indian.
Even if that person is just a blond, blue-eyed white kid
from somewhere near Chicago, and up close couldn’t look
any less at home in his costume than your dog does when
you put a coat and sunglasses on him.
The next agreement is that we, the observers, must all
know, or think we know some basic things about Indians.
In order to achieve this, they have to trade in stereotypes.
“The chief” stereotype is that of a figure from the “golden
age” of Indians, a purer, more innocent time before
Native culture was destroyed and altered by the coming of
Europeans. This kind of imperialist nostalgia informs
every aspect of “the chief” and his so-called “tradition” (a
word that was chosen specifically to invoke a sense of
unbroken connection to the past, and the proven worth of
things both tried and true).
You couldn’t utilize a living Native person for this purpose
—despite the fact that he may be culturally, phenotypically
and perhaps even genetically indistinguishable
from your preferred historical version, because a real, living
person is … well … a real person. Just like everyone
else. And real people have a way of inconveniently straying
from the approved script and not living up to the ideal.
So over the years this “chief” has been sent to grade
schools and public events, and he’s delivered lectures on
Native American history and culture primarily because he
can be depended upon to stick to the script. He probably
doesn’t actually know any more about the subject than what
that script tells him. But at the very least he doesn’t have any
of those inconveniently contemporary qualities that an actual
Native person would have, which would keep him from
being … well … “Indian” enough for the part.
Before we go any further, there is a point I’ve been making
that I wonder if you’ve picked up on. To wit: Native
themed mascots like “the chief,” are fundamentally mimetic.
Their entire existence is derived from, and is dependent
upon the cultures they purport to represent. Any amount of
legitimacy they claim to have is in direct proportion to how
accurately they are able to copy actual Native Americans
and their culture, or as in the case of the chief, how true
they are to the most commonly held stereotype thereof.
Just look at how they justify this thing. It is described in
terms of it’s accuracy, it is said to be a tribute to; an actual
authentic version of; is derived from; is respectful to, and
of course, let’s not forget its intent to honor—Native Americans.
But usually, in nature, when you have one creature
that depends entirely upon another for its existence, the
relationship is symbiotic. You keep my fur free of fleas, I
protect you from predators.
But there is no reciprocation going on here. Aside from
the dubious “honor” of having the richness and variety of
hundreds of different indigenous cultures boiled down to
one simplistic and inaccurate stereotype, native people
don’t get much out of the bargain. And all the millions the
University makes off of merchandising goes right into its
own pockets, and nary a cent goes to the people whose
cultures are being sold. The relationship “the chief” has
with real Native people isn’t symbiotic, it’s parasitic.
All of those things I mentioned about the “war paint’;
the costume; the dance, and the pseudo religious trappings—
the things that I said were all beside the point in remaking
the chief seem authentic to his fans—are actually
the point to the people whose cultures those things are
derived from. “The chief” may seem to be something dignified
and reverential to the people who love him, but to an
actual Native person, or to someone from any of the many
groups whose rich experiences and complex lives have also
been reduced to simplistic caricatures of this sort, it’s obvious
what “the chief” is—and what he is not.
Take for example the mercifully short-lived Facebook
group that was called “If they get rid of the Chief, I’m
going to become a racist.” (That the people who created
and joined this group seemed to be utterly oblivious to the
irony of that name is simply astounding). Facebook, for
those who don’t know, is a sort of online bulletin board,
where students post about things that interest them, and
are then able to append comments to each others posts,
carry on conversations, and just generally socialize with
one another. One of the most telling comments posted in
this group was: ” … what they don’t realize is that there
was never a racist problem before..but now i hate redskins
and hope all those drunk(sic), casino-owning bums die.“
Now I couldn’t express what’s wrong with stereotyping,
or the ignorant arrogance of privilege that these few words
manage to convey any clearer or more eloquently if I’d
written a hundred, or even a thousand pages of exhaustive
(and exhausting) disquisition on the subject. The person
who posted this apparently has only two types of Native
people he is able to conceptualize: the ‘Noble Savage” of
the George Catlin or James Fenimore Cooper variety—as
portrayed by the chief—or the drunken, casino-owning
bums who exist primarily as an invention of racists who
wanted another category to define the objects of their
hatred. The problem isn’t so much that someone would
think about you that way—you can’t go through life without
making a few enemies—but that so many of the people
who control your opportunities, who own the media;
run the government, and write the history books, think
that way about you. Their voices, multiplied and amplified
many times over on account of that power, are so much
louder than yours, that they simply drown you out. If you
even bother to try to tell your own personal and unique
story, no one is listening and they can’t; they won’t hear
you. They won’t even try.
Even if you have no great desire to “fit” in their world,
the problem still exists that you—for all intents and purposes—
do not exist as an individual in the minds of far
too many people who control access to the things you
need. They design the education that you have to acquire
if you want to get good jobs, and they are the ones who
make the laws that define what you can, and cannot, do.
And what can, and cannot be done to you.
So yes, “the chief” was important—is important. He has
served as a potent rallying point for adherents of the ideologies
of exclusion, dominance, and privilege, and to the
many, many people who unknowingly supported them
because they didn’t realize what was actually going on. His
presence has reminded the rest of us daily of our “place” at
this University, and in society in general.
So it’s great that he’s gone. It’s long overdue and I’m very
happy about it, but pardon me if I’m not as impressed by
the retirement of this dancing cheerleader as I might be. The
University has in no way admitted that there was ever anything
wrong with “the chief” at all. They didn’t address the
misrepresentation of native culture his image has perpetuated
for 81 years, and they didn’t even acknowledge the fact
that for nearly twenty years this has been an extremely divisive
figure on this campus, and that his removal was
absolutely necessary if they even hoped to bring the student
body together and earn the national and international
respect that this University otherwise deserves. Quite the
contrary in fact, Chairman Eppley made it a point to praise
this “proud tradition” of misrepresentation.
So nothing substantive has changed, and the long, hard
fight of hitherto ignored and marginalized people to be
respected, recognized, and accepted for who they really
are, continues on. Would that it were not so.

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