Native Americans, The University of Illinois, and Ignorance

Indian children taken from their tribal homes and placed in boarding schools against their parents’ will.

Perhaps the most absurd statement that is repeatedly used by those who think having a dancing Native American at sporting events is a great idea is, “The mascot is meant to respect Native American traditions.”  I can assure you the people who believe and say such things are in no position to determine what is or is not respectful to Native Americans.  Yesterday I was working out at the YMCA with my trainer, Susie, who is Native American and in the background ESPN was covering a story on this topic featuring my beloved Alma mater as a perpetrator of continued use of an Indian tribe as a part the school’s athletic program’s identity.  Naturally, I was embarrassed.

(In addition to having time to travel on my little sabbatical I also have time to write about things that I find absurd.  So my apologies if you were looking for an update on our trip to Chicago or Joshua Tree.  Instead you get this which is influenced by all the exposure I’ve had to museums sharing the history of Native Americans.)

My love for the education I received at Illinois does not extend to the continued use of “Fighting Illini” or the disgusting display of mostly white people wearing “Chief” t-shirts while drunk and stupid, defending the use of the Illini name for a university and calling for a return of the dancing Indian at half-time shows. It embarrasses me that these people are a part of my alumni family.  But it also leaves me with a question of is it possible to educate these people about this fairly straightforward issue?  Arguing with the ignorant is futile but educating them can be extremely rewarding.

I had to apologize to Susie yesterday as she was trying to explain how I should contract my lateral muscles while pulling back on the rowing machine, my gaze constantly drifting to the ESPN story playing on the screen just behind her.  “Susie, I’m so sorry, I can’t take my eyes off this story.  I’m mortified that my alma mater is in the news yet again for this never-ending issue of using a Native American tribe as the school’s namesake: The Fighting Illini.  While I was a student we actually had a white guy who dressed up in a feather headdress and Illiniwek clothing and danced around on the football field and the basketball court while the band played on their shiny instruments something that resembled traditional Native American music.”  Susie’s reaction spoke volumes.  Before she spoke I focused on her face and her body language.  She was quite simply hurt and saddened to hear me recount this disrespectful practice of the dancing Indian used to entertain sporting fans.  It wasn’t new information to her but it was just like the physical reaction I have anytime I hear of a child being abused, it’s sad and it hurts.  And it’s hard to understand how seemingly educated people do not understand this.

Susie shared with me her good memories of visiting her father’s tribal land while she was growing up and having the privilege of seeing firsthand the sacred traditions and ways of life of her tribe.  But she also shared the strife these Native Americans live under while trying to assimilate into the American lifestyle that has made no room for the Native American traditions.

Native Americans are not charicatures for white people to take pleasure from turning into a mode to galvanize school spirit.  If I dressed up like the Pope and “learned” all of his traditional hand movements and prayers that he uses to bless people, would it be ok if I performed those movements and said those prayers while the marching band played Catholic hymns at halftime as I walked around the football field offering to bless people?  Would that be ok since I was honoring the Catholic priesthood by wearing a replica of the Pope’s clothing and made sure I had all the hand gestures and prayers exactly right?  I’d also make sure the marching band was on pitch with those hymns.  Nevermind that there is no alter, no crucifix nearby, no burning incense, or that I’m not actually a priest.  What?  You say the Catholic Church is not a good analogy because we sports fans are looking for a testosterone inducing battle-cry representing fighting warriors!  The Pope is a peaceful man representing a peaceful church.

Here is a little history lesson for all of you who might have things mixed up.  The Native Americans were partially wiped out by the Carholic church by way of the Spanish who invaded North America’s west and gave Native American’s an option.  They could either convert to Catholosism or die.  All those beautiful Spanish Missions that dot the coast of California were essentially places for the Spanish to “convert” Native Americans to dutiful Catholics and/or become slaves.

Or I could use the analogy of the American colonist and American government who forced the Native Americans to sign treaties relinquishing their land on the east coast as part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Plan allowing for more colonist westward expansion thus forcing Native Americans to leave their land and walk west in what was called The Trail of Tears.  Maybe a caricature of an American colonist with the backing of the new colonial military could help get the school,spirit flowing at the football games.  Or better yet, how about the American leaders of the the 1870’s who removed all Native American children from their families and placed them in boarding schools to “Kill the Indian in them and save the man!”

If the goal is to find a mascot to elicit a powerful battle cry it might make more sense to turn away from Native Americans and  focus on white men with guns.  We have a plethora of those around and if you review American history it’s not a stretch to see the connection.  The Native Americans used methods to fight  the white man that were no comparison to the white man’s guns and so they lost just about everything.

My wish for my alma mater is to lean on the great scholarship that takes place 24/7 on campus and the excellent teaching skills of its faculty to put a plan in place to make sure every Illinois graduate understands the history of Native Americans and why using them as a mascot is not only disrespectful, it’s illogical.


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