Wednesday, March 16, 2005


From Erin Zorn's Notebook (link above)
March 16, 2005


I’ve long been on record opposing the use of stereotypical American Indian imagery in mascots, school symbols and team nicknames.

To me, it trivializes and demeans indigenous peoples in a way we would never dare trivialize, say, African Americans, Jews or other groups that have historically felt the hard heel of discrimination. The white people may mean well when they name a team the Redskins or dress up in ersatz ceremonial Indian garb and dance around the basketball floor, but meaning well is not enough.

Chief Illiniwek, the hotly disputed symbol of the University of Illinois, is in the news again now that the Illinois Native American Bar Association has sued the University of Illinois Board of Trustees in Cook County Circuit Court seeking a court order barring "the use of Chief Illiniwek as a sports mascot" because it violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

I doubt the suit will resolve the fight, but I have an idea that might. And it's based on the only argument in favor of the Chief that carries any weight:

That argument says if it’s wrong for some white people to presume heedlessly to honor Indians, isn’t it also wrong for other white people to presume heedlessly to speak up for Indians?

Just so.

My opposition to Illiniwek is based on the presumption that the view of the activist opponents reflects the views of the majority American Indians, who ought to have the only vote in this matter.

If Chief Illiniwek is OK with that majority, my objection is little more than paternalism and the activists are just touchy rabble rousers. Let the chief stay.

But if Chief Illiniwek offends that majority, support for that symbol is little more than racism and its backers are churls. The chief must go.

A passage in a 2002 Indian Country Today article about legislative debate in California several years over such school imagery reveals that the opinion of American Indians isn’t necessary clear:

Paula Starr, the executive director of the Southern California Indian Center, cited a Sports Illustrated poll that showed 81 percent of Native Americans did not care about the mascot issue. "We have a newspaper called Indian Country Today, which goes to Indian people all across the country, and that poll showed that over 80 percent of Native American people oppose mascots." The poll was actual an "unscientific email survey of "Opinion Leaders."
An Associated Press story last fall reported:

A poll of American Indians found an overwhelming majority of them are not bothered by the name of the Washington Redskins pro football team. Only 9 percent of those polled said the name is "offensive," while 90 percent said it's acceptable, according to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, released Friday. Annenberg polled 768 Indians in every state except Hawaii and Alaska from Oct. 7, 2003, to Sept. 20, 2004.
It seems to me that American Indians living in Illinois – not coast to coast – should have the final and only say about the specific issue of what to do about Chief Illiniwek.

The various factions ought to get together with a skilled, objective polling organization and devise a way to get a reliable measure of relevant opinion on the point, and agree to abide by that opinion for, say the next 25 years.

I, for one, will agree to shut my yap on this topic once I’ve heard what the Indian people have to say.


Blogger mikeni said...

Having watched the Chief for many years I am worried about one thing. Each time I see him I am stirred and reminded of the Native Americans whose land we largely stole. I see very few reminders of that in our culture and I worry that those who wish to be rid of the chief may rid us of one of the last reminders of the greatness of the American Indian.

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