Sunday, May 29, 2005

Natives support culturally accurate Chief


May 29, 2005

Every time I hear the argument over Chief Illiniwek, I get the feeling
that someone is missing from the debate. It's like a 100-year-old
great-grandpa is sitting in the corner of the room, and half the family
insists he'd like a glass of milk, while the other half screams he'd
rather have coffee.

Everyone thinks he knows better. No one asks the old guy.

In Illinois' case, that's a bit of a stretch, as this has nothing to
do with family. Instead, it's roughly a bunch of white people at a
university claiming that their American Indian symbol honors American
Indians, while a bunch of Phd.'s and people from organizations with a
lot of capital letters say he's offensive.

Yet probably 150 people were at Aurora University on Saturday in
authentic American Indian regalia, doing authentic American Indian
dances to authentic American Indian beats.

That's because they were authentic American Indians, from roughly two
dozen tribes across the United States and Canada. It was the school's
15th annual Powwow, and it starts up again today at 1:30.

Thorpe Sine's 6-year-old, Kyle, was totally out of control with his
Hacky Sack and kept knocking over the director's chairs his family was
sitting in before their turn to dance. Sine, a Ho-Chunk Indian from
Glenpool, Okla., was sitting on a University of Illinois chair.

Are you familiar with Chief Illiniwek?

''Yeah, I've seen it,'' he said, in full regalia, including beautiful
feather arm bands. ''I don't see it as authentic. But I have no problem
with it. I've got a lot of family down there in Illinois, where my
grandfather was living. Very few Indians are offended by that.''

Sine goes to 40 or 50 powwows across the country each year to pass on
the culture to Kyle.

I went around the powwow asking Grandpa what he wanted to drink,
listening to the experts about Illiniwek. Stuff like, "Are you honored
by him or offended?'' Has anyone asked them? Because we've had this
debate for 15 years now.

They did not give the final answer. But this was an effort to get the
right people into the discussion.

The Chief should stay

My sense now is that the Chief should stay, but not the way he is. How
about a little actual research. The only credible person we've heard
from so far was Charlene Teters, an American Indian and former U of I
grad student. She is offended by the Chief, and said so throughout the
documentary, ''In Whose Honor.'' Since then, members of the Illinois
Board of Trustees have walked around campus with Groucho Marx nose and
glasses, hiding from the issue.

How about going to one of these powwows, or a bunch of them, talking
with, maybe polling, these American Indians who are there for their
6-year-olds, trying to pass on accuracy, history and family. They
aren't in it for the politics, or because they love a team name.

Meanwhile, I now have serious doubt about the authenticity of the
Chief. We've been told about how one of the first Chiefs hitchhiked
across the country in the 1920s to some tribe to learn how to honor our
state's history.

For sure, the drumbeat sound all day in Aurora was not what we hear at
Illini games. That ''THUMP, thump, thump, thump. THUMP, thump, thump,

''John Wayne,'' Charlie Belisle and Rich Figueroa, Oneida Indians who
live in Green Bay, said at the same time.

Belisle said the beat is supposed to represent a heartbeat. And if
anyone's heart is beating like that, he had better call 911.

And Figueroa said that ''Native American men do not high-kick.''

Chief Illiniwek does. I heard that theme again and again, about the
Hollywood beat and the high-kicking. It was three hours of research.

Let's hear again about the great lengths they went to at Illinois to
make this thing accurate.

If you can get to the powwow today, do it. They have booths selling
all sorts of authentic stuff, from handcarved flutes to rabbit fur.
It's outdoors, in the campus quad, by the Schingoethe Center for Native
American Studies. They have bleachers around a huge dance circle, and
guys sit in the middle thumping the beat, the legit beat, while
different groups or tribes do their dance.

Both sides have support

What do you think of Indian sports symbols and mascots?

''As long as it's done in a respectful way, that's fine,'' said Walker
Stonefish, a Delaware Potawatomi from Walpole Island, Ontario. One
dancer, who declined to give his name, said Illiniwek is an insult,
that it's an honor to earn the rank of chief, not something you can
just slap on a sports team. Another said it was too much of a

Belisle and Figueroa think Indian mascots and symbols honor them, as
long as they don't go overboard like the chant at Atlanta Braves games.

''At Marquette,'' Belisle said, ''I don't know why they went away from
Warriors. And there's a high school just outside the reservation, and
they were called the Seymour Indians. Now, they're dropping Indians. It
doesn't make sense.''

Now the NCAA is considering forcing schools to drop American Indian
mascots. I hope they're talking to the right people.

Meanwhile, I got an e-mail last month that said, ''those American
Indians who are not offended are so numbed by the way American Indians
have historically been treated and depicted, that they are pleased that
there is some recognition at all.''

It came from someone at the Illinois Native American Bar Association.

Maybe there's some truth to that, but I still think Grandpa is a
credible source for what he wants.


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