Thursday, August 11, 2005

UIUC's Foolish Dancing Caricature

Bill Plaschke wrote an article entitled Chief Justice - NCAA makes the right call by cracking down on Indian mascots for the Los Angeles Times on August 07, 2005. One of the people he interviewed is Joseph Red Cloud. He is an occasional contributor to Phil Konstantin's Newsletter.

Four hundred years ago, Middle America was populated by a group of native tribes known as the Illini.

They were among history's first underdogs -- hunters and farmers outmanned by war, disease, and displacement.

There were once 12,000 Illini in the area.

Today there are none.

That is, if you don't count the guy who entertains the University of Illinois sports crowds by pretending to be a whooping Illini chief, dressing like a caricature and dancing like a fool.

He's historically inaccurate. He's morally questionable.

He's also, finally, thankfully, endangered.

Making a rare move that actually reeks of education, the NCAA on Friday banned from its postseason tournaments the use of 18 Native American nicknames and mascots it considers abusive.

The University of Illinois is on that list. That means if it makes it to basketball's Final Four again, the words "Illini" and "Fighting Illini" will have to be as invisible as the culture they diminish. [. . .]

"It's about time," said Joseph Red Cloud, an administrative assistant with the influential Oglala Sioux tribe in Pine Ridge, S.D. "These names have always meant something different to Indians and non-Indians. They say they are honoring us. But many of us don't find it honorable."

To many sports fans, Native American nicknames are inspiration.

To many Native Americans, they are infuriating.

To many sports fans, the "Fighting Illini" is symbolic of their Midwestern spirit.

To which Native Americans ask, um, fellas, why do you think the original Illini were fighting in the first place?

Many feel that allowing Native Americans to force nickname changes is as silly as allowing folks from Ireland to mess with Notre Dame.

Yet few of those critics are from a culture that has been stolen, hidden and now demeaned.

In other words, Notre Dame fans, leprechauns weren't real people.

"These names and images have a damaging effect on Native Americans because it freezes us in our past, it distills our humanity to a one-dimensional term," said Joseph Gone, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who once fought for the elimination of mascot Chief Illiniwek when he was a student at Illinois.

Gone said he was stunned by the effect that the chief's presence had upon the racial attitudes on campus.

"When I got there, I thought, sure, a mascot could be relevant," he said. "But then I saw how the Native American students on campus felt cheapened, they would have things thrown at them, they underwent a very bitter experience."

He thought removing the chief would be easy.

"I thought, he's just a mascot, right?" Gone said.

Wrong. At Illinois, as in other places, the Native American nicknames have become as important as the ancient library or tree-lined quad.

It's as if, instead of trying to recapture an identity, Native Americans are being accused of stripping one.

To understand the importance of the NCAA's fist here, one must understand the stubbornness of those it cannot touch.Think about this: It's illegal to drive around the Washington, D.C., area with a license plate reading "Redskin" because it's considered defamatory, yet the town's pro football team continues to embrace the same name.

Now think about this: The term "Redskin" was originally used by settlers who paid money to bounty hunters for the decomposing skin of dead Native Americans.

Yet politicians and influential media members sit silently while awaiting their weekly allotment of tickets."

On one hand, Washington says it wants a government-to-government relationship with Native Americans," Red Cloud said. "But on the other hand, politicians walk outside to a team with a nickname that degrades us. What is that?" [. . .]

Will the NCAA's decision force a change in the pros? Probably not.

There are millions of dollars tied up in those Redskin T-shirts and Indian mugs, and, in the world of sports, money always trumps manners.

But the NCAA's decision could certainly force a change in the college names. All it takes is one national championship game to be played with a patch over your nickname for a president to be convinced.

While the NCAA has no jurisdiction over the conference-ruled bowl championship series, look for the football playoff folks to eventually follow suit. And wouldn't that be fun for Florida State then?

Although, officially, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has no problem with it.

"If I had a child and wanted to name it after you, wouldn't you consider it an honor?" asked Max Osceola, a tribal council member. "Once again, we have non-natives trying to decide what is right for natives.

"Known as the Unconquered Seminoles, it is the only tribe that never lost a war and never signed a treaty.

It carries huge weight in their state, particularly in Tallahassee, where tribal consultants have helped the horse-riding Seminole mascot remain true to their heritage.

Said Osceola: "We have a great relationship with the university, we think our tribe is represented well."

Said Red Cloud: "I'm glad for them. But very few tribes are like that."

Said Osceola: "I agree, I am angered by many other things I see, I can only speak for us."

At least somebody is finally speaking for all of them, the NCAA taking a long-awaited step toward the sort of tolerance that is true learning.

One day, perhaps, the trivialization of a culture will no longer be dressed as school spirit.

And racism will no longer be disguised as the Tomahawk Chop.
NOTE: Illinois has had no federally recognized tribes since 1833. There are none in Missouri either.


At 11 August, 2005 10:11, Blogger Highland Pundit said...

Go Illini!

At 11 August, 2005 12:02, Blogger IlliniPundit said...

Wow, this post and the article you excerpt are tremendously ill-informed.

I don't even know what to say, this was so bad.

At 11 August, 2005 17:28, Blogger Philosophe Forum said...

IP -- Your statement is probably why the article appeared in the LA Times instead of an IL periodical. I psted it here to show an alternative perspective.

There's a difference between Urban Indians & Reservation Indians. Mr. Red Cloud is Lakota. His perception of "Chief Illiniwek" is completely unfavorable, & he states why. The Seminole Nation disagrees & embraces the use of Indian Mascots.

I happen to agree with Mr. Red Cloud. The fact that IL has no tribal lands is the saddest commentary of all.

At 12 August, 2005 11:33, Blogger Kankakee Voice said...

I've been watching this on the local and national news. I have to side with the "non-casino owning Indians" who want to respect their heritage - what tiny bit is left of it. I espcially agree with them on the issue of not naming American War machinery after Indians. Lou Dobbs last night was bitching about this. If the Indians had won, had committed genocide on the whites, would we feel good about the Indians naming their military helicopters and such after dead white men? I would find that truly offensive.


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