Dance a While in His Moccasins
Chief Illinwek—mascot, symbol, or insult?
See Illinois (unpublished)
Native Americans of the old Illinois nations, being dead, have been embraced by the non-Indians of east-central Illinois without fear or qualm. The people once feared or sneered at are now embraced as avatars of folk wisdom, ecological and otherwise. The chance to experience what they experienced is a regular part of the appeal made by managers of parks and other places associated with the Grand Prairie’s Indians. Visitors to the Humiston Woods Nature Center outside Pontiac are promised “the chance to walk in the footprints of Kickapoo Indians” (not, presumably, all the way to Oklahoma, to which place the Kickapoo were expelled). A private tree farm outside Rantoul gives visiting children a chance to play in “a realistic Indian tepee,” even though the Native Americans who peopled that part of the U.S. lived in long wigwams covered with reed mats.
Chief Black Hawk, or at least a romanticized version of him, has been embraced by northern Illinois as a symbol of that region. (See The Spirit of All Indians.) East-central Illinois has its Indian totem too, Chief Illiniwek, who is not merely romanticized but mostly imagined.
This material is taken from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. (See Publications for more about that project.) Some of it appears in my book, Corn Kings & One-Hose Thieves.
Indians are to the Illinoisans of today what the leprechauns were to the Irish. Residents of the old Grand Prairie of east-central Illinois, for example, eagerly appropriate the likenesses of Native American braves and chiefs to decorate the paraphernalia of their sporting teams, even their professional associations. For years, the U of I Department of Agronomy used as its logo an Indian cartoon caricature purporting to represent Squanto, the Patuxet Indian who saved the Pilgrims from starvation at Plymouth Colony by showing them how to plant corn and where to hunt and fish, which made Squanto the patron saint, as it were, of the department.
In appropriating the likenesses and native peoples, Euro-Americans do them somewhat less violence what some Indian peoples themselves did when their warriors ate the hearts of the bravest of their fallen foes. By this ceremonial appropriation of identity—by absorbing into their own bodies, in effect, the likeness, the names, the garb of their vanquished foe—non-Indians seek to share admired traits the Indian is presumed to possess.
The association of the legend and the department’s mission was apt but the symbol was deemed offensive and is no longer used. The university itself, however, retains its Indian nickname, the Fighting Illini, and vaguely Indian motifs recur through the school’s rituals and symbols. Among the U of I’s fight songs is “Oskee-Wow-Wow,” and the Illinois Loyalty contains the refrain, “Chehee, Cheha, Cheha-ha-ha/Go Illini Go”—an exhortation of uncertain meaning, whatever its power to excite business majors getting in touch with their inner warriors.
The problem, so often, is that the traits admired by whites are not always the traits that Indians possessed, but the ones Indians are imagined to have possessed. (Or to put it more precisely, those traits possessed by the Indians that whites have invented.) The complications caused by this dreamy anthropology can’t be better illustrated than by the career of the buckskin-clad Chief Illiniwek, which has performed a war dance at half-times of certain athletic contests of the University of Illinois’s Fighting Illini since 1926.
The popular ritual was intended from the start as entertainment. (The performance was dreamed up not by an anthropologist but an assistant band director.) The Chief was not derided as politically incorrect until the 1970s, but it was arguably anthropologically incorrect from the start. The Illini were a loose confederation of several Algonquinan tribes including the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, and Metchigamea, who were present in most parts of what is now Illinois when Europeans first arrived. The Illini were a people of the eastern forest, as were all their predecessors who traipsed this part of Illinois. The costume of Chief Illiniwek, however, is that of a Plains Indian. So is the hairdo; the student who devised the costume in the 1920s disdained the scalplock worn by the Illini as unfashionable. (Bobbed hair among the coeds was one thing, but . . . ) Nor did woodland Indians wear the war bonnets of the plains Indians that add such a theatrical touch to the performances. As for ethnographic authenticity, the dance itself was derived from the Native American style of dancing called "fancy dancing" or "fancy feather dancing," which originated as a method of entertaining visitors at reservations. It is as authentic as the hoedown in “Oklahoma.”
As models for youthful endeavor, the real Illini left much to be desired. Donald Ross Peattie, by no means an unsympathetic observer, summarized historical opinion when he called the Illini an “affable, treacherous, libidinous people.” They delighted in torture when they managed to capture an outnumbered foe. They sold wives and daughters for trinkets. They were ruinously fond of gambling and drinking. This may make Chief Illiniwek an accurate (if not admirable) mascot for hard-partying undergrads, but not otherwise an apt choice even if its presumed racism is ignored.
The propriety of the Chief’s performances was raised as an issue in 1975. Those isolated complaints (mainly that it was demeaning) quickly become a chorus. The controversy inspired legislative resolutions, countless editorials, demonstrations, even a novel. (In his 1983 novel Indian Giver, Gerald Duff told the story of a teen-aged member of an east Texas Indian nation who was recruited by the Fighting Illini basketball program and naively believed he would be playing for an all-Indian team.) Anti-Chief activists entered a float in the 2000 homecoming parade titled "Epitaph for Chief Illiniwek."
Students, state lawmakers, national Native American organizations, all had their say over a period of years. Senior faculty have resolved against the Chief, as did dozens of university departments (all in the humanities), and dozens of campus organizations including the Student Government Association. The accrediting North Central Association in a recent evaluation praised the U of I’s "world-class" faculty and library collections" but devoted eight pages of its 35-page report to the controversy over the Chief, warning that it "interferes with the educational climate and with the institution's stated goal of creating an inclusive community."
Nonetheless, the board of trustees for years refused to abandon what most alums (especially most sports alums) plainly still regard affectionately as a totem of college experience. The dispute illustrates an enduring aspect of Indian-white relations, as most Native Americans judge the university’s gestures by their effects and most whites judge themselves by their intentions. Each camp is correct, but only as far as it sees the issue, which means that neither is.
In time the sneers moved the trustees to order the Chief, in effect, confined to a reservation. The Chief logo derived from the figure no longer appears on official university stationery. Beginning in 1989, appearances of the Chief were curtailed, so that by 2000 the Chief performed only at football games, men's basketball games, and women's volleyball games. In 2005, the NCAA banned the "hostile and abusive" Native American mascots of 18 colleges and universities from postseason tournament play, a decree that the university appealed and which the NCAA overruled; the decision means Illinois would not be allowed to host NCAA championship events unless it abandons the Chief.
Resisting to the last, the board of trustees in 2007 sent Chief Illiniwek to his well-earned rest. The final official performance took place at the last men's home basketball game of the season against Michigan. The Illini won, 54 to 42.
The university in 2007 might have banned the Chief from university events, but students and alumni have kept him alive. For years after, student Chiefs still performed, unofficially, at area sporting events, protesters still protested those appearances, and faculty and others still complained that the use of the Chief's image and the nickname "Fighting Illini" violate the spirit of the agreement to sideline the Chief. Thirteen years after his official demise, the school still has no other athletic team mascot, nor does it seem close to choosing one.
Elsewhere in Illinois, a more informed, or at least more sympathetic public, is adopting a more circumspect treatment toward their Native American predecessors. In a typical move, Sangamon County’s Ball-Chatham school board in 2001 decided that the high school athletes would no longer be known as Redskins and that the local junior high athletes would no longer be the Braves; village officials also pledged to eventually to paint over the head of an American Indian drawn onto the local water tower by a student in the 1980s.
More recently, bill have been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly that would require consultation with Native American groups before Indian mascots and team names could be used, even though such groups are themselves divided about whether such things are disrespectful. Such measures potentially would affect more than four dozen Illinois high schools alone.
Does a new era of wisdom beckon? Probably not. Indian school names are being abandoned as an accommodation to living Indians, not as an act of expiation by whites, who realize only dimly that many of these towns and schools stand on Indian land made available by acts of ethnic cleansing in the early 1800s. ●