Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Dancing Caricature Remains Foolish

The Springfield State Journal-Register posted an Op-Ed defending Chief Illiniwek. The Chief is the mascot for the University of Illinois (UIUC) and the center of a long-standing debate.

On the surface UIUC and Amy provide good arguments for the Chief. There is even a university organization promoting good works. Unfortunately, the arguments do not work for anyone knowing anything about true Illinois Confederacy's culture, appearance, languages, etc. It would have been better had UIUC’s goal been about authentic tradition than a hodgepodge in a dancing symbol. And few people in Illinois want enlightenment on the subject . . .

Many Algonquin-speaking tribes have inhabited this region before the European invasion began. The Illinois Indians, also known as Illini or the Illiniwek, were a group of independent tribes sharing a common language and a common origin. The Illinois language belonged to the central Algonquin group, along with the Miami, whom the Illinois Indians closely resembled. The word Illinois is the French version of the Algonquin term for men. In 1673, the Illinois Confederacy included about twelve tribes: Kaskaskia, Maroa, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Tapouaro, Coiracoentanon, Espeminka, Moingwena, Chinkoa, Chepoussa, and the Michigamea. By 1700, all but the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa had disappeared from the territory, through either original misidentification (some of the groups designated as tribes may have been only subdivisions of a tribe) or absorption into other tribes. As their populations diminished, these tribes, too, merged: the Tamaroa and Michigamea joined the Kaskaskia, and the Cahokia merged with the Peoria. After a Kaskaskian Indian killed the Ottawa chief, Pontiac, in 1769, provoking enmity of the Lake tribes, the Illinois took refuge for a period with the French at the village of Kaskaskia. It was at this time that the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and Potowatomi began to move into the territory vacated by the Illiniwek.

For 50 yrs., the Kickapoo (i.e., Kiwigapawa, meaning he stands about, he who moves about, stand now here, now there) remained in the area (which includes the UIUC campus) until 1819. Contemporaneous tribes of Indians and military authorities, French, English and American recognized th
eir ownership. On July 13, 1819, they signed a treaty in Edwardsville ceding their lands to the US. The language of this treaty recites that, said Kickapoo tribe claims a large portion by descent from their ancestors, and the balance by conquest from the Illinois nation and undisputed possession for more than half a century.

Here are a few facts:

  • The Kickapoo (i.e., Kiwigapawa, meaning he stands about, he who moves about, stand now here, now there) settled the area that UIUC occupies. It would be more appropriate to obtain feedback and permission in recreating their culture.
  • Borrowing from other cultures and polling Indian Country as a whole is misleading. It would be more appropriate to use anything from the Central Original People (Algonquian) of the Upper Country.
  • The UIUC Historical Fact Sheet never mentions anything about the history of the area prior to its charter. If history is that valuable to the institution, something about the region's original inhabitants would be part of that fact sheet.
  • Finding information about Japan House and John Philips Sousa is easier than finding any Native information on the UIUC cultural website.
  • The Lakota and Kickapoo were enemies. It is ironic that the outfit currently used during the performances was provided by Chief Frank Fools Crow, an elder in the Ogala Sioux tribe of South Dakota, and was sewn by his wife. It’s more of an insult really and looks nothing like the traditional clothing for the region.
  • Instead of naming the chief Illiniwek, Kanakuk, a Kickapoo prophet, would have been more appropriate. The name could also honor one of the actual tribal chiefs -- maybe the one that signed the treaty ceding the land the university occupies.
  • If many of the portrayers have actually visited Indian reservations in order to enhance their knowledge and their performance, they would be familiar with the Brown County, Kansas, reservation (and their water shortage) and the Texas & Mexico residents.
  • If the portrayer knew anything about the culture, he/she should be making as many speaking appearances in TRADITIONAL costume as possible.
  • Not speak in costume or even utter the words excuse me is ridiculous. It would be better for the portrayer to learn a few Algonquian phrases and REALLY promote greater understanding of the Illinois Confederacy.
  • It would be appropriate for a person of the Upper Country or of French descent to portray a Kickapoo. The people would not have been black nor even had black slaves. They had strong alliances with the French. They would have sold any captives as slaves to the black inhabitants of the West Indies.
So far there is no indication that anyone associated with UIUC really wants to show respect to the former inhabitants of the land it now sits on. Supporters seem to prefer redirecting everyone’s attention to some imaginary political objective. They fell for a really good con thinking no one would ever notice. The university needs to stop using a composite of a Plains Indian as a marketing gimmick and REALLY support the descendents of the Algonquin:
  1. Work with the REAL descendents of the IL tribes and not their historical enemies to dance, dress, and speak authentically.
  2. Create an Illinois Conferacy cultural center and sponsor visits for the descendents (Urbana has Japan House. UIUC can do this.) and activities/events during November (i.e., Native American Month).
  3. Promote historical accuracy instead of selling sports.
  4. Conduct fundraisers to benefit the tribes in Kansas, Texas, and Mexico.
  5. ACT like they value the region’s history in the marketing materials.
  6. Have the law students research federal law, file the necessary paperwork, and force Yale to repatriate Geromino’s skull.
  7. Provide FULL all-expenses-paid scholarships to the members of the Algonquin tribes living on reservations.
Obviously, goal of the UIUC administration has nothing to do with authentic tradition (or REAL support for the tribal reservation descendents). It created a marketing gimmick out of a hodgepodge of Plains Indian culture. As a whole, Black Hawk’s defense of his beloved Saukenuck against Manifest Destiny does better drawing attention to the long-forgotten Native American tribes than a tired, tasteless marketing gimmick like a foolish dancing caricature selling university sports and embarrassing a state. UIUC loses credibility doing nothing about their foolish dancing caricature and remains a sucker for a good con.

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