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January 14, 2004

Disagreement Over Illini's Native American "Mascot"

 

Chief Illiniwek at the Univ. of Illinois is not a typical Indian, and he is not even a real one. He is a student dressed in Hollywood-style regalia. He dances at football and basketball games.


A debate over whether mascots with Indian themes are offensive or harmless has played out on college campuses and at professional stadiums for more than two decades.


The catalyst for the debate was a proposal last month by Frances Carroll, a member of the university's board of trustees, to have Chief Illiniwek "honorably retired." The proposal has divided the university along political and racial lines. A symbol of pride to many students and alumni, Chief Illiniwek can at the same time be a hurtful reminder to American Indians.


The chief's presence at games flies in the face of a national trend. In 1970, more than 3000 American athletic programs referred to American Indians in nicknames, logos or mascots, according to the Morning Star Institute, a Native American organization. Today, there are fewer than 1100.


But those who think it is time to retire the chief note that the symbol for the past three years, and for almost all of the past eight decades, has been portrayed by a white college student. Matt Veronie, a student with spiked, gelled hair, is the current chief. At games, Veronie's cheeks are painted Illini orange and blue. He wears a matching feathered war bonnet and Lakota-made buckskin; at halftime, he dances and leaps with a solemn countenance.


In the late 80’s, Charlene Teters, a student and member of the Spokane Nation, started holding up a placard outside the football stadium that read "American Indians are people, not mascots." News accounts of her protest spurred the movement. "When you see a community erode your child's self-esteem, you act," said Teters. When she arrived at Illinois, a campus sorority was still holding a Miss Illini Squaw contest.


Ever since, the chief's three-minute halftime performance has divided the university, sometimes along political lines.


"The chief is symptomatic of how American society co-opts the Indian identity and simultaneously romanticizes and denigrates that identity," said Illini student John McKinn, a Maricopa. "Pseudo-spiritual dances are passed off as authentic. It just dismisses who we are."


Genevieve Tenoso, an Illini anthropology major who is the great, great granddaugther of Sitting Bull, described herself as a "reluctant activist." Tenoso said, "I wanted to ignore it. But I looked up on the wall at a fan shop and saw the chief head on a seat cushion. Then I went online and saw a chief bathroom scale and a little two-piece toddler set that said, `Love Me and Love My Chief.' I was pulled in."


Carroll, on the board of trustees, isn't willing to wait much longer to jettison the chief, "We're in a 21st century global society. We have to be sensitive to images, thoughts, behaviors that affect other cultures — cultures that we now know we were misinformed about."  (excerpted from NY Times, 12-16-03)