For 64 years, Chief Illiniwek, the painted and befeathered symbol of the University of Illinois, has stamped his feet through an allegedly authentic dance at Memorial Stadium. The chief, almost always a Caucasian wearing a copy of an Oglala Sioux headdress, is the sort of ignoble savage that grunted and circled wagon trains in Saturday afternoon serials. Many Native Americans find the university's Indian chief about as palatable as the cigar-store variety.
"It's a racist, degrading figure that demeans our heritage," says James Yellowbank, a Winnebago who is a member of the Indian Treaty Rights Committee, a Native American advocacy group in Chicago. "No one would tolerate a phony priest performing a mockery of Communion in the San Diego Padres dugout. Yet the university encourages a phony Indian to prance around with the band in a burlesque of our sacred ceremonial dances. My Indian friends all call him Little Red Sambo."
Last October, Native American groups joined Illinois students and administrators to ambush the chief. They enlisted Joseph Smith, the university's director of academic affirmative action, who branded the chief "an affront to the dignity of all Indians." They got Illinois Senator Paul Simon to sign a petition to banish Illiniwek. But not everyone agreed. The state's junior senator, Illinois alumnus Alan Dixon, said he was "filled with pride for my school" every time he saw Illiniwek. Governor James (Big Jim) Thompson, who has painted his face for some football games in Champaign, said he, too, "stood proudly" beside the chief.
Illinois chancellor Morton Weir has refused to dump the chief. "Illiniwek is a dignified, respected, even revered symbol," he asserts. The state legislature passed a resolution last fall praising the university for "its commitment to preserve the esteem of Chief Illiniwek."
September 16, 1990
Native Americans seem more weary than angry at the university's cartoon chief. "These people keep telling us how much they love Indians," says Charlene Teters, a Spokan who is studying fine arts at Illinois. "Yet when we criticize the mascot, we're hushed like small children or harassed by the community."
Yellowbank knows it will be hard to reverse the trivialization of his culture. "There's something comforting in this Hollywood depiction of Indians," he says. "It makes it easier to dismiss the realities of Native Americans today: the poverty, the alcoholism, the high suicide rates."
A ray of enlightenment shone during the 1970s, when Stanford changed its nickname from the Indians to the Cardinal, and Syracuse dropped the Saltine Warrior. "Army had a mule for a mascot, Navy had a goat, Georgia had a bulldog and Syracuse had an Indian," recalls Syracuse alumnus Oren Lyons, an Iroquois chief from Nedrow, N.Y., near the Onondaga reservation. "It was as if we were less than human. The irony was very heavy."
Heavy irony may have caused Dartmouth to drop its Indian nickname soon after its bicentennial in 1969. The school was founded by Rev. Eleazar Wheelock to educate Indians, but in its first 200 years, it granted degrees to about 40,000 whites and only 13 Native Americans.
Today, The Dartmouth Review is campaigning to bring back the "Indian." Started in 1980 and primarily funded by alumni, the Review is an independent, right-wing, student-run journal that styles itself the "world's most notorious college newspaper," though it has no formal association with, or funding from, the college itself. The newspaper has ridiculed black students in Stepin Fetchit dialect, called a black professor a "used Brillo pad" and suggested that academic standards at the college might drop if more Jews were admitted.
To Review editors, the Indian symbolizes the old, all-white Dartmouth before the administration caved in to liberal pressure and banished the mascot. They express their indignation by giving away T-shirts and bumper stickers that say, THE INDIAN WILL NEVER DIE.
A Review essayist recently wrote about feeling oppressed by the oppressed. He complained that students who strut around campus in Indian T-shirts are labeled "racist" and "fascist." It's a free-speech issue, he said. Besides, added another Review editor, Indians ought to consider it a privilege to be associated with such a hallowed place as Dartmouth.
The Review editors would do well to shut their dart-mouths and listen to what Native Americans are saying. The Indian has nothing to do with football and everything to do with what's sacred to the Native American heritage.