I am contacting you today because you have, in the past, written about the University of Illinois' sports mascot Chief Illiniwek, and I thought you might appreciate hearing about how things stand here at UIUC now that 'the chief' has been officially 'retired'.
As you may remember, in March 2007, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted to officially 'retire' Chief Illiniwek. Unfortunately this was done without any mention by the University administration of the problems associated with the mascot or its negative impact on the campus climate, and for this reason it is generally understood by all concerned that the decision was a financial rather than moral one. Further, there has been no attempt to fill the void and create a new mascot or identity for the team--the name 'Fighting Illini' has been retained along with the Hollywood-'Indian' music which used to accompany the chief's dance at half-time--therefore 'the chief' remains the de facto mascot of the U of I's sports teams even though the mascot himself no longer makes an on-field appearance.
Images of 'the chief' and references to him still overwhelmingly dominate the UIUC campus discourse, and there are large and well funded groups actively working to not only keep his memory alive, but to find ways to retain him as an integral part of campus life. Their stated goal is to ultimately come up with some way of reinstating him as the official mascot.
One such group called Students for Chief Illiniwek is now hosting an annual event titled 'The Next Dance' at a place called the Assembly Hall--the University of Illinois' largest and most prominent sports and entertainment venue. This event features video retrospectives of the chief and his history, as well as a live appearance by a new portrayer of 'the chief' who recreates his dance and half-time performance to the accompaniment of members of the University marching band.
This is, as you might imagine, a fairly large and well organized operation, and therefore in no way can this be considered simply a student inspired initiative. It is in fact a quasi-official event which requires coordination and cooperation throughout the entire University administrative system in order for it to be successfully staged.
I am writing to you therefore on behalf of a group of student, faculty and community members who oppose this activity.
Unlike those who wish to retain 'the chief', we operate without any outside funding or official support and therefore articles such as the ones you've posted on this subject in the past have been extremely important to us and our work, because by far the biggest obstacle we face is the continuing ignorance of the general population as to what this struggle is actually all about.
Racism, intolerance and bigotry are certainly factors to be considered when trying to understand 'the chief's' continuing popularity, but what probably creates the broadest support for it is the fact that people in this country have long been misled and misinformed about their own Indigenous population--real education having been replaced by the promotion of myths and stereotypes--and it is this which sustains and underpins the success and popularity of the commodification and commercialization of Native cultures that figures like Chief Illiniwek represent. Very few people would think this thing was acceptable, or buy into any of the references to 'dignity' and 'honor' that are made on its behalf, if they only had some idea of just what a one-dimensional caricature their 'chief' actually was, but after being raised on a steady diet of similar characters via movies, TV shows, and cartoons--and even quite a few actual history books as well--this imagery seems so normal to them that they are unable to recognize that these are in fact stereotypes at all.
And on top of all of that, there is something inherently offensive about the descendants of the invaders of this land using a representation of their dispossessed victims for entertainment purposes of any sort, regardless of how authentic that representation may or may not be. When viewed in this context 'the chief' appears as nothing more than an animated trophy whose intentionally anachronistic appearance reenacts for our amusement those all too familiar tall tales about 'taming' the Wild West and bringing 'civilization' into the wilderness.
But we will never solve this problem until people understand what's actually going on, and therefore we who oppose the continued use of this thing depend upon voices like yours to keep this issue and others like it a part of the national conversation, because only if someone knows there's a question being asked are they likely to be able to recognize an answer when one is presented to them.
To this end I'd like to let you know that on October 2nd, another 'Next Dance' is scheduled, and our coalition plans to be there. We're holding a rally outside of the stadium to let the public know what's really going on inside.
We don't imagine that we will change very many minds in this way, but we do hope to make people at least think about what they're doing, and hopefully come to realize that their casual entertainment comes at a very steep price to all those who's history and culture is being packaged and sold for their amusement.
If you would be interested in having more information about this action or the current campus climate at UIUC, you can contact me directly or else visit our website at http://www.iresist.org/minstrel.
An "animated trophy"...perfect. I'm adding that phrase to my repertoire of mascot descriptions.
For more on the subject, see Team Names and Mascots.