Walking into the new TGI Friday’s in Champaign recently I was taken aback. On the wall there was a mural of the Champaign-Urbana landscape, which was a nice representation of our community. However, in the middle of the mural the business had included the retired University mascot, Chief Illiniwek, an icon of racial appropriation and racism. I couldn’t believe that this symbol was still being used. Many locals and representatives of the Lakota people contacted the franchise, asking that the image be taken down, citing that it was offensive. The business decided upon a poor compromise—painting out the logo’s face—somehow thinking that it would be less offensive to appropriate a blank stereotype. However, due to “public outcry” from the pro-Chief constituency, the owner has re-painted the mural, citing in a local news piece that s/he is, “sorry if it offends anyone but ‘the legend lives on’.” This blatant use of racist imagery seemed shocking in a university town that prides itself on diversity.
In 2007, under pressure from the NCAA, the University of Illinois finally retired their racist mascot, Chief Illiniwek. This should have been the end of this controversy. However, as the University has never officially condemned its previous use of this racist symbol, many in the community continue to demand the Chief be brought back, citing the need for tradition. This has manifested itself in showing film footage of the final Chief Illiniwek performance in University affiliated spaces, the continued appearance of an unofficial Chief Illiniwek at University sporting events, and a continued debate between the University and pro-Chief groups over the rights to the logo, with arguments that the image’s ownership be returned to the artist, so that Chief merchandise can again be made available for sale. None of this conversation has included paying Indian groups for the use of the image. Nor has the University come out and denounced this activity, making it appear that they, too, favor the Chief and racism.
As a lifelong resident of Champaign-Urbana, I have been brought up on the controversy surrounding the University of Illinois’s now former mascot Chief Illiniwek. I remember at a young age watching coverage on the local new stations about anti-Chief protesters on the quad arguing that this mascot was racist, that it was an instance of cultural appropriation, that it created an atmosphere of violence and oppression in which no one could be expected to learn, that it needed to stop. I came from a pro-Chief family who complained about “whiny Indians” and thought the symbol was something everyone, especially Indians, should be proud of and feel honored by its existence. I was young but something felt wrong about this. How is someone in a fake costume, doing a fake dance, supposed to honor anyone, I asked. It’s the thought that counts, was the answer. But whose thoughts count I asked; what if the mascot made fun of poor working class people, wouldn’t you be offended and want it to stop? It’s not making fun of anyone, they replied. But people on campus— Native Americans and others—do think it’s making fun, they say it’s hurting them.
How can you not stop doing something that hurts people, especially when they ask you to stop and tell you how it’s hurting them? It’s covering over a history of genocide that saw North American Indian populations reduced from an estimated 12 million in the 1500s, to 237,000 by 1900. It’s ignoring the multiple treaties that we broke with sovereign nations that led to massacres, land grabs, and Indian removal. This symbol covers over Indian schools that took Native American children away to teach them assimilation when the reality for Indian children was often horrible physical and sexual abuse, not to mention the psychic trauma of being told that they and their parents were savages. That stuff was all in the past, I was told, it doesn’t matter now.
But it does. Indian Reservations are some of the poorest areas of our country, experience some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse and sexual assault. This has nothing to do with some sort of biological essentialism that would argue that Native Americans are predisposed to this. No, this is a postcolonial disorder; this is the effect of being colonized by an imperial power for hundreds of years. We may not like to think of America as an empire, but it is our history and our current policy. These problems are symptoms caused by generations of dislocation, abuse, and theft not only of lands, but also of the right to self-determination and their own culture, its uses, and the profits from those uses. Native people were not getting anything from the use of Chief Illiniwek; no funds were going to help reservations or other tribal organizations. Unsurprisingly, the people who were profiting from this were the privileged few.
To those people who in the face of these facts think that there is no current problem with the Chief, that the problems were in the past, when the image itself was more of an offensive caricature and printed on things like toilet paper, or when Indians were still abused through relocation, let me remind you of the physical vandalism of Native American property on the U of I campus. Edgar Heap of Birds’ 2009 Beyond the Chief installation outside the cultural houses on Oregon Street was repeatedly vandalized, and signs from the installation were stolen. After the thief was caught, he was charged with theft of $300 worth of property, even though the artwork was appraised at over $10,000 per panel. While Edgar Heap of Birds has exhibited similar works on other campuses with a history of racist mascots, only here did the work become a focal point of anger and eventual destruction.
Additionally, a story posted on Campus Faculty Association page gives insight to the real life material consequences of the history a racist mascot. The story notes that in 1968, a diversity initiative called Project 500 was implemented, trying to raise the freshman enrollment of African American students to 500. In 2013, we have yet to meet that goal, with only 433 African American freshmen enrolled. Surveys trying to assess why people of color were either not enrolling or not graduating at the U of I cited campus climate, especially offensive comments and threats of violence. Is it really any wonder that students feel it is O.K. to attack their fellow students when the University did officially for decades, and the community still does to this day in the form of Chief Illiniwek?
This is a racist legend and this mural perpetuates ignorance about the violence enacted against Native Americans, and the United States’ history as an imperial nation. It makes the ignorant appropriation and economic exploitation of another people seem like fair game so long as it is for a “good” cause, like a primarily white and privileged sports tradition. Furthermore, it continues to perpetuate real violence, particularly against students, a group that the University and the community should be trying to help succeed. This issue should have ended when the University retired the mascot, but as many refuse to accept this, we must continue to make the alternative heard.
Contributed by Susan Livingston.