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Beyond Protesting Native American Imagery: Toward Creating Our Common Future

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Our guest author provides insights into the controversy surrounding the use of Native American imagery in America’s high schools and colleges, as well as how this imagery could have been, and can still be, used as a stepping stone to transformative education—educating students, fans, and the general public about the significance of this imagery and the real history of Native Americans, with the aim of helping us come to an understanding that "we are one.”

By Frank G, Splitt, 04-26-18


Karl Rove's April 5, 2018, Wall Street Journal opinion piece, "The Pitchforks Are Out for McKinley," exposes the harm being done in Arcata, California via labeling and false narratives. Here are examples of such harm. The first example covers grievous harm that has already been done while the second example covers harm that is currently in the making.

In 1926, Chief Illiniwek was conceived as a sacred symbol of the University of Illinois—representing the heroic spirit of Illinois Indians. The Chief was not considered by the Chief's creator, the late Raymond Dvorak, to be a mascot in the usual sense. The same was true for the thirty-six outstanding Illini students who were honored to be selected to portray the Chief. Nevertheless, false narratives labeling the Chief as a mascot surfaced in recent years. False labels once applied and steadfastly reinforced are difficult to remove. Unfortunately, such labeling led to the Chief's official banishment by the university in 2007. 

The current fuss began some thirty years ago when graduate-student Charlene Teters initiated anti-Chief Illiniwek protests at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,  Her compellingly heartfelt remarks became the centerpiece of Jay Rosenstein’s consequently unbalanced documentary "In whose Honor.” The documentary’s divisive mischaracterizations of Chief Illiniwek as a mascot was a major contributor to the Chief’s banishment… banishment that was aided and abetted by the NCAA.  

The NCAA abused its power while serving its own self-interest by diverting attention away from the ever heightening concerns about its money-making exploitation of college athletes, particularly minority athletes. It was the NCAA that provided the lethal force via its 2005 ban on post-season play by any of its member schools using Native American imagery without endorsement by the cognizant Native American entity, no matter how respectful and well-intended the usage.

Rosenstein continued his anti-Chief rhetoric in a July 17, 2017, Huffington Post piece, "Twenty Years of Fighting Native American Mascots with "In Whose Honor?””—rhetoric that was promulgated by Chris Quintana in a front-page story in the March 30, 2018, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The story’s title and subtitle set the stage for an unbalanced mascot-label-rich narrative, to wit: "The Mascot is Fiction, The War is Real." and "Why a made-up retired mascot still inspires pain and pride at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,"          

Paraphrasing Rove, the anti-Chief Illiniwek rhetoric has been so unbalanced and warped that only willful ignorance and runaway political correctness explains their destructive action. And the beat goes on.

In his April 7, 2018, Daily Herald front page column, "Maine West revisiting use of Native American mascot," Chacour Koop calls attention to the dilemma faced by our nation’s educational institutions that have used or are still using Native American images to symbolize their schools and/or their athletic programs.

Pejorative labeling of imagery and portrayals as run-of-the-mill mascots, rather than as symbols of Native American honor, strength, courage, integrity and leadership, has been devastating to say the very least—leading to the loss of a potentially significant educational opportunity over the years. False narratives, mischaracterization, political correctness, and a way of thinking based on "me and mine, and survival of the fittest" have blinded many to this opportunity.

What is required for reconciling conflicting views, as well as moving toward the future with a less-divided nation, is no less than a shift to a new way of thinking, to wit: "we and ours, and survival of us altogether"—a challenging shift to the unifying paradigm "we are one."  Here’s why.

In the 19th-century era of Manifest Destiny, American settlers widely believed that they were destined to expand the country across North America without regard for the natural land rights of Native Americans. This is the often untold dark side of American history of genocide by way of ethnic cleansing that took place during America’s formative years along with broken treaties that left the Native Americans bitter and distrustful. This way of thinking and doing on the part of the government and settlers created a cultural divide, a deep wound that is still with us today.

Schools utilizing Native American symbols had a built-in segue to an educational imperative—to educate their students about the painful past history of America’s native peoples. Education focusing on the meaning behind the school’s use of Native American symbols at student orientations and in messages in the programs for athletic events would not only have been a good start toward the destination of healing the wound of the cultural divide, but also a critical step toward creating our common future with a more unified American citizenry. It is what it is, so where do we go from here?
Looking to the future, there is still ample room for some creativity and imagination about how we can transit from being negative (for example, simply being against Native American mascots) to being positive via transformative education. By this I mean the selective use of Native American imagery and history to educate students, fans, and the public. To this end, I am planning to collaborate with Teters who is now the Academic Dean at the Institute of Indian Art in Santa Fe, NM.  

This transformative education would tell the Native American story by not only covering the sacred nature of Native American imagery, but also addressing the question of why it is so important to the descendants of the survivors of the American holocaust. Daniel Cobb's Native Peoples of North America, John Sedgwicks’s Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation, and Dorothie and Martin Hellman’s A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet ( will be valuable references in this effort. The guidelines for conflict resolution offered by the Hellman's directly apply to the use of Native American imagery.

An example of educational measures that can be taken can be found in the work of the Honor the Chief Society that is dedicated to preserving the honor and tradition of Chief Illiniwek, For more on this society go to ( 

The controversy over the use of Native American imagery in our nation’s schools is another example of the divisive issues discussed in the author’s commentary "America's Democracy: Eroding from within,” at ( 
American culture is far from being self-correcting; change will require concerted political well as a vision for a common future characterized by the healing of the divisions that have riven our nation---America's Democracy depends on it.

NOTE:  This commentary is based, in part, on the author’s Guest Commentary "Pitchforks were out for the Chief” in the April 15, 2018, Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and his letter and related comment on "Pitchforks also out for Chief Illiniwek” in the April 22, 2018, Daily Herald. Also, evolution to the "we are one” paradigm is discussed in the essay "Creating Our Common Future" (The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, Fall 1992) that can be found in Part 1 of the author’s Odyssey book, see below.

Frank G. Splitt, a former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the author of An Odyssey of Reform Initiatives, 1986-2015: From Engineering, K-12, and Higher Education, to the Environment, National Information Infrastructure, and Collegiate Athletics, accessible at ( His wife is Raymond Dvorak’s niece.

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