October 16, 2010

Students learn from Chief Illiniwek?!

In response to this Chief Illiniwek article posted on Facebook, someone tried to justify the clownish mascot:Not that I'm not sympathetic to accurate/respectful/appropriate presentations of other cultures, but I do have to ask... realistically how many students at the U of I would even know that the word "Illinois" is derived from Native American culture if they hadn't been made aware of the mascot? Is disappearing into obscurity better than a mascot that skirts the boundaries of respect? At least the few interviews I was made aware of during my tenure at the school showed that the chosen mascot was made VERY aware of the heritage behind the image.

Not saying that I'm a chief fanatic... I'm actually on the fence... but when the alternative is obscurity, I gotta wonder if we're not being a little to PC here...
My response:

How many are aware that the word "Illinois" is derived from Native American culture now? How many learned this from the "Fighting Illini" nickname alone, which doesn't require the Chief mascot? How many think the Illini Indians looked and acted like Plains Indians because of the stereotypical mascot? How many know a single fact about the Illini other than "they existed"?

You say the mascot himself was made aware of the mascot's heritage? That's not even close to the issue here. The issue is how much observers learn by seeing the dancing mascot. And not about the mascot's heritage, but about the real Indians he doesn't represent.

I don't buy that mascots teach us about Indians, or that Indians will disappear from our culture without mascots. Indeed, I've refuted such claims several times. For instance:

Mascots teach us Indians?
Losing war over mascots?As I said, I'm on the fence... and this is one of the reasons why... so I ask again, which is better... knowing nothing or knowing something that is at best partially correct? Would you prefer that people didn't even know that "they existed"?

History gets "corrected" all the time. Sometimes the correction is even right (or at least a better interpretation of what's available)... isn't that better than being swept under the rug because it's too controversial to even bring up?
Fortunately, "knowing nothing or knowing something that is at best partially correct" aren't the only two options. I choose a third option: knowing historically correct information untainted by a false and stereotypical mascot.

Mascot = only way to learn?For those of you with the time/energy/interest to dig into the full historical details, great. I applaud you. You can actually bring some context to the argument.

What I object to is the blanket assertion that it's black or white... you "c...are enough to dig" or you "don't care at all"... I'm not sure if mascots help or not... I just know that I wouldn't have even known the Illiniwek (sp?) existed without the mascot, cause I wouldn't have looked into it, even to the limited extent that I did... math and comp sci took too much of my time.

So, at least one example where the mascot was better than nothing.

Knowing where we came from is important, even when the way we learn about it is from questionable sources. If we care enough (obviously you do) then we dig deeper... if we don't, then well, it doesn't matter, does it? But I wouldn't be engaging you right now if I hadn't cared enough to find out why the U of I used an Indian (and an admittedly pretty generic one at that) as a mascot.

Do I believe I can speak for them? No. Do I believe I have an answer? No. Do I believe the mascot is harmful? That I don't know... it caused me to care enough to look a little... is that better than not looking at all? Apparently, you think it isn't...

If you want to propose a better way to bring awareness that actually gets people's attention, I'm all ears... but I can just comment on one that got me to look deeper than "Oh, it's a mascot..."
If the U of I was serious about honoring the Illini Indians, it could do so in any number of ways. Articles, lectures, artwork, events, monuments, etc. Heck, give every incoming student a booklet on the real Illini.

I don't expect students to go out of their way to learn about Indians. The university put a lot of resources into promoting Chief Illiniwek. If it put a fraction of those resources into promoting real Indians, students would get the message.

The university has its Inclusive Illinois program, which looks decent. Part of that should be teaching about the state's Native heritage. If the program works the way it should, students should know about the Illini by the time they leave.

If they don't learn about the Illini, then revamp the program until they do. But there is no need whatsoever to rely on a clownish mascot to impart this information. Your "mascot or nothing" choice is a false one.

Why a Plains chief?

If you seriously think a mascot is the best or only way to learn about Indians, okay. What's your excuse for this stereotypical Plains chief? Keep the mascot but get rid of the non-Illini costume and dance routine. Make him look like an actual Illini Indian from the old days. Better yet, make him look like one of today's Peoria Indians of Oklahoma, the Illini's closest living relatives.

You've barely come up with an excuse for keeping some Indian mascot. You haven't come up with an excuse for keeping the stereotypical Chief Illiniwek. If you're defending this particular mascot, you're defending the racist stereotyping of Indians. That's not what I'd call a defensible position.

For more on the subject, see Barnhill Speech at "Next Dance" and "Next Dance" Is Educational?!

1 comment:

Burt said...

The reasoning behind keeping “Indian” mascots is simple. It declares several methods towards self identity and the continued myth(s) rather than a defined accurate representation of a living people from both Anglo and native people alike.

Anglo culture falsely represents dominance and the conquering of other humans, through the use of entertainment and sports. For a nation that prides itself on freedoms and equality, nothing could be more damaging to that myth and national psyche than the facts of destroying and the continuing destruction of an aboriginal people, so why not laugh it off, or discount the mascot issue as “irrelevant”.

Because America’s native nations remain and since colonial times have been “categorized” as the underclass of society in popular culture, social standing and political clout, there has always been the need for targeting this group as “inferior”.

Mascots do not honor any identifiable group or race of people. The purpose for mascots simply creates and keeps said targets as inhuman and inanimate objects for entertainment.

African Americans had to deal with blackface performances in American cinema, but since the negative portrayal of another race may draw attention away from white on black racism, why not Indians? Or, it is very possible that our African American brethren are much the same in areas of racial ignorance toward the Native American.
My personal take on this country and what it deems as popular culture is that until America learns the realities and facts of its continued genocide through acts of legislation and leveling living beings to inanimate objects for populist entertainment, there can be no real proclamation set on American soil, in spirit or physical ownership, on lands Americans so proudly attempt to call “my land” because they know absolutely nothing about this continent and even less of its first people.

The facts about America will never happen with history books that teach and encourage myths and falsehoods only for its people to live in a lie at the cost of another race. This kingdom of heaven was built on the bloodshed of men by sword, and supposedly this comes from their own scriptures placing Christianity and Islam on the same level.