On February 21, 2007 the University of Illinois got rid of the Chief Illiniwek mascot.
On August 24, 2017 they got rid of the “war chant.”
The “war chant,” separate from but related to the so-called “3-in-1,” was created during the 1980-1981 basketball season by Beth Nuss, leader of the pep band saxophone section. “Back in those days, the NCAA allowed the pep bands to play quick ‘vamps’ whenever the home team was on offense.” The band director “always encouraged section leaders to be creatively involved in the band, offering tunes, cheers and ideas to be played…At this one particular game, our band director had been distracted in conversation with someone… Illinois suddenly got the ball and the game was pretty exciting. I turned to the sax section…. I asked the alto saxophones to play the simple melody and made up a harmony for the tenor saxophones to play along with… At that point, the saxophone section, combined with the baritone section, began our first ‘war chant.'”
As Nuss says explicitly, the “war chant” “was not an original melody. It was something I recalled hearing back in my youth, perhaps from a movie or cartoon. I had no recollection of where the melody came from; it just came to me.” In other words, it came from Nuss’s store of cultural memory; it was among the collective cultural representations she imbibedwhile growing up. “It was made up by ear from thoughts that came to me from something I could vaguely remember from an old movie or perhaps an old cartoon.”
“War Chant” from Old Captain Kangaroo Cartoon
In fact, it was from an old cartoon. broadcast on “Captain Kangaroo.” The music was from a song called “Pow Wow the Indian Boy.”
Pow Wow, the Indian boy,
Loved all the animals and the woods…
Pow Wow was a friend
Of all the animals in the woods;
If there was any trouble,
He would help them if he could;
If Pow Wow couldn’t help them,
He would go to the Medicine Man,
And he would tell them stories
Just how it all began, all began, all began …
The song introduced a black-and-white cartoon called “Adventures of Pow Wow.” One episode, “The Magic Spigot,” for example, features besides Pow Wow, Chief Kick-a-Shin, and is set in Wahoo Valley.
You can’t get more fake Indian than that.
Key is that what became the “war chant” was part of a shared cultural memory from 1950s and 1960s America, so that it is not surprising that others responded to it when the pep band played it, and that it caught on. “We played it again my senior year,” Nuss says. “The crowd response was good from it.”
You cannot draw a straighter, more direct line than this from a white caricature of native Americans to the music and dance associated with the Chief Illiniwek mascot. The “war chant” was literally a cartoon.
The vamp indeed pumped “up the crowd.” That is, fans filled this vessel of cultural memory literally with themselves – their dim recollections, unarticulated remembrances, their feelings growing up transferred from a cartoon caricature to a cartoon mascot.
Fans, however, either don’t know or don’t care that the “war chant” originated in a racist, Indian caricature; few, if any, think about how they are reproducing a racial stereotype when they unreflectively repeat the “war chant.” Nuss certainly does not. Quite the opposite. Disappointed to see the “war chant” banned, she did not want to see Chief Illiniwek done away with either.
“It is a subject that goes deep to my heart. Only those who have been involved in things such as Illini athletics, the band, cheerleaders, etc., truly understand the traditions and pride of the Illini. It’s something I cannot explain.
This is why there is such a passion revolving around this subject. To some outsiders, it’s ‘just a stupid mascot,’ and they scream for us to move on already. To those of us who understand, who’ve lived on campus, upholding the great traditions, this runs deep within us.”
Talk about cultural memory. Doing away with the “war chant” brought back to life, zombie-like, all the barely repressed feelings and memories about getting rid of, “retiring” the Chief Illiniwek mascot 10 years previously. The same old arguments, claims, jeers, snark, criticisms were heard yet again, and again and again.
1) “They keep chipping away” at everything having to do with the mascot.
2) “The evil NCAA made us do it.”
3) “FSU has the Seminoles, but we can’t have the Chief.”
4) “The Chief elicited excitement, pride: how can that be bad?”
5) “Not all Indians are opposed” to the mascot.
6) “It was the distant, out of touch administration at the big U that did this.”
7) “None of this would ever have happened were it not for (Jay) Rosenstein and (Steven) Kauffman (and Nancy Cantor).”
8) “Josh Whitman betrayed us”
9) “This whole thing should be decided by majority vote, we outnumber them, this is tyranny by a very small minority.”
10) “Those opposed don’t even go to the games”
11) “After the ‘war chant,’ they say they won’t ban the ‘3-in-1,’ but we don’t believe them, we don’t trust them.”
12) “They didn’t tell us beforehand, they didn’t come out and say they were going to do it, they were sneaky.”
13) “How stupid: how can music be racist?”
14) “How unhistorical: the music came much later than the Chief.”
15) “This is another example of pc run amok — where does it stop?”
16) “The only ones offended are liberal snowflakes. Suck it up. Get a life.”
But who exactly is the snowflake here? Answer: it is overwhelmingly the pro-Chiefers who are whining, playing the victim.
Yet between banning the mascot in 2007 and eliminating the “war chant” in 2017, nothing has been learned. There are no new arguments.
All of this is, however, no longer funny, or cute. Not after Trump, not after Charlottesville.
“Illini Nation” Resembles Trump Nation
In many ways, Illini Nation resembles Trump Nation, the base he plays to. Both are exclusive rather than inclusive. Trump Nation may be populist, but the dark side of populism is its authoritarian tendency. While in some respects inclusive – and disproportionately white – it simultaneously excludes other people — disproportionately minorities.
Like Trump Nation, not everyone is included in Illini Nation. Fans like Nuss say, in effect, if you don’t get it, then you’re not one of us, you’re not really part of, a member of “Illini Nation.” Truly, “I bleed orange and blue,” as the bumper sticker said.
Anti-Chiefers say the mascot, the dance, the 3-in-1, and the war chant are all based on racist stereotypes that have nothing to do with native Americans. Grow up, get over it. Those others, the anti-Chiefers, are not viewed as real, bona fide, card-carrying members of Illini Nation. As a numerical minority who oppose the mascot, moreover, they literally do not count. Exactly the same argument is made by Trump Nation authoritarians. The true believers bleed orange and blue, they exclude everyone else as ‘other,’ different, not one of us, not like us, who don’t feel things like we do.
Those who support Chief Illiniwek and the war chant claim to be honoring native Americans, that Chief Illiniwek is a positive symbol. Yet the online comments to the News-Gazette’s wall-to-wall coverage of the war chant ban include several explicitly racist anti-native American ones, as well as racist anti-Chinese posts.
“You’re so right, CallSaul, representation and imagery should be correct.
Perhaps a dancing slot machine or bingo card is more appropriate?”
“I find those means of Native American “fundraising” offensive yet it’s allowed because these areas have tribal sovereignty, states have limited ability to forbid gambling there, as codified by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.
Apparently preying upon people with gambling weaknesses in the name of profit is fine. Good to know “safe spaces” exist for people to lose their money, compromise families as a result of lost finances, and feed an addiction.”
“So true. Slot machines and casino bells pay homage to the Illini more than Chief Illiniwek and the war chant.”
“Yes, lets replace “Illini” with Drunken Gamblers. That would be clearly more appropriate and current.”
“Maybe change our name to the University of Illinois Chinese Commandos. Because that’s all that is going to be left to fund this nonsense.”
“Coming soon— University of Beijing-Champaign Campus”
It got so bad that one poster, conservative on every other social issue, called for others to stop the anti-Chinese posts.
“I hope all the posters here will stop with the anti-Chinese comments because they are truly ugly and painful, particularly in light of the still missing Yingyang Zhang and her family and friends. The Chinese students here are just that: students. Just as are the Korean students, the Japanese students, the Israeli students, the Lebanese students, the Iranian students, the students from France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Haiti, Chile, Peru, Indiana, Iowa, California, New York…..and so on. Stop with that xenophobic, provincial nonsense.”
Both Illini Nation and Trump Nation appeal to “tradition,” even if fake, unhistorical, or invented. After Charlottesville, News-Gazette sports writer Loren Tate wrote, “As we see all over the country, right or wrong, people are passionate about their traditions. Can’t blame them.” If this isn’t a racist dog whistle, I don’t know what is. Since Trump demands to be able to be an overt racist, white supremacist nationally, it gives license in effect to be unapologetic racists locally.
Instead of representing the broader Champaign/Urbana community, the News-Gazette represents – and gives an open mike to – the exclusive Illini Nation. Yet C/U is larger than Illini Nation, and a lot more diverse.
When it comes to the Chief Illiniwek mascot and the war chant, the News-Gazette practices what I call “push journalism,” entirely analogous to “push polling.” Not content with reporting, the paper manufactures “news.” After the war chant was banned August 25, every day until mid-September the paper ran at least one story, editorial, or column, plus hundreds of online comments and numerous letters to the editor.
Newspaper Run By Jocks
The paper is run by jocks. Managing editor Jim Rossow, former sports writer. News editor Jeff D’Alessio, former sports writer. Forty-year sports columnist Loren Tate. Opinions editor writer Jim Dey. Tate and the others running the News-Gazette are acting like petulant adolescents, just like Trump. They should move their offices down the street to the Marajen Stevick Senior Daycare Center.
Yet despite the paper’s wall-to-wall coverage of everything Chief and the war chant, there are huge blind spots in their sports coverage.
In the ugly spat between Trump and NFL players protesting police brutality, photos of Champaign-based Flex-n-Gate owner Shahid Khan linking arms with his Jacksonville Jaguars players appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among other places. In the News-Gazette there was no mention whatsoever; Khan had suddenly become a non-person. This is the same Khan whom the paper fawns over as a local billionaire, a Republican, and Trump supporter. The same person who when he was put up for a UI honorary degree, the paper defended from critics who argued he was undeserving because of his multiple OSHA workplace violations and fines. Oh, that’s right, he’s Muslim. I get it.
Where’s the News-Gazette? It’s AWOL. The exact same place Republicans are on gun control. On climate change. Its idea of “reporting” is all too often non-reporting.
Trump tweets about the “beautiful hits” football players sustain. But it’s left up to homeboy George Will to discuss chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and comparing football to bear baiting. “The Puritans banned bear baiting…not because it gave pain to bears but because it gave pleasure to Puritans.” They “understood that there are degrading enjoyments. Football is becoming one.”
Politics infuse sports. Those running the News-Gazette know it, but they are in such deep denial that they cannot and will not acknowledge it. The fans don’t go to see politics, the jocks say, they go to watch bear baiting, er… football.
The News-Gazette is the mouthpiece of Illini Nation. It disserves the broader, more diverse C/U community. Complicit in aiding and abetting racism, the paper makes things worse instead of better. If you’re going to continue with this Chief stuff 28 years after Charlene Teters began protesting in 1989, 10 years after the mascot was banned in 2007, in the 2017 aftermath of national, bipartisan criticism of divider-in-chief, white supremacist Trump on Charlottesville, and you still don’t get it, then you are clearly, unapologetically racist. The stench from your jockstraps is unmistakable.
In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal (and I’m purposely not mentioning all the Bill O’Reilly’s here), not even harassment defender Jim Dey dares write yet another of his many editorial columns attacking “microaggressions,” which, after all, are another form sexual harassment takes. (In the aftermath of the clearly fraudulent, lying Republican “repeal-and-replace” sham, Dey has also stopped his many, egregious editorial attacks on Obamacare. Who would have thought?)
All Too Many Americans Cannot – Or Refuse To – Deal With History
All too many Americans cannot — or refuse – to deal with history. They cannot, they refuse to engage the past, work through it, come to resolution, and move on. They cannot, they refuse to learn from the past, to come to terms with it. They’re stuck. Thus, they condemn themselves to reliving it, reenacting it again… and again and again. Confederate monuments to slavery. Burns and Novick’s Vietnam paean resurrecting and reliving the war but not resolving it, drawing lessons from it, or moving on from it. Football halftime reenactments of Indians and white settlers.
One clear sign of this refusal to engage and move on is the high proportion of war chant commenters acting like adolescents rather than adults. To the point where other commenters commented on these whining whiners. What adults do with children throwing a temper tantrum is put them in timeout. Pro-Chiefers are like Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up.
With the Chief Illiniwek mascot, and now the war chant, there is no resolution, no closure. There is only indefinite deferral, reproducing the same old tired arguments over and over. Like Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice vainly swabbing up the floor over and over in that other 1950s cartoon, Fantasia.
We can now see that UI made a grave mistake in 2007 by not rapidly replacing the Chief mascot. When Stanford got rid of its Indian mascot in 1972, they replaced it immediately with the Stanford Tree, and soon after with today’s Cardinal.
In contrast with Stanford, Illini Nation still thinks the mascot is real. The Chief Illiniwek mascot controversy is all about anthropomorphism, about making a person out of an inanimate mascot. “Of course, you love him. You created him,” Charlene Teters observed years ago. In In Whose honor? directed by Jay Rosenstein, whom the pro-Chiefers love to hate, Indian activist Michael Haney plays a native drum piece followed by the war chant — “That’s Hollywood.”
But getting people to see the Noble Savage mascot as a stereotype, getting people to hear the war chant as fake Hollywood music — that’s been the whole problem all along, hasn’t it?
So, like a Jack-In-The-Box zombie, the controversy keeps coming back again and again. The continued anthropomorphizing, the personal investment in the fake Indian means that even talking about talking about a mascot replacement creates a firestorm.
The UI administration no doubt wants to move on, to be rid of the whole thing. Equally, the UI administration has consistently, systematically failed to take a stand, make a clean break. In not doing so, it has produced and reproduced, over and over that which it claims it does not want – for the controversy to continue. Here the Chief supporters are absolutely correct. The administration is and has been spineless throughout this whole sorry saga.
It’s déjà-vu all over again, as another player used to say.