Smile Politely

Three takeaways from the U of I’s Implementation Plan on Native Imagery

In December of last year, the University of Illinois announced its “Native American Imagery Implementation Plan.” According to the news release, this plan was:

A communitywide discussion initiated by Chancellor Robert Jones in 2018 informed a three-year action plan to address issues related to Native American imagery on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus.

Though history has shown that there has never been a perfectly executed truth and reconciliation project, it has illustrated that these endeavors are essential to healing and moving forward, of holding people and entities accountable for actual damage, and to begin the process of building a more inclusive future.

After over a decade of hand-wringing, equivocating, hemming and hawing, and outright nonsense since the removal of the racist mascot, Chancellor Robert Jones had a difficult and unenviable task of trying to “fix” the U of I’s mascot problem. In 2018, he created the “Chancellor’s Commission on Native Imagery,” charged with the following:

  • Provide closure, healing and reconciliation for stakeholders
  • Facilitate the establishment of new traditions
  • Remember the history of the Chief – with a focus on both the intent and impact of the tradition
  • Honor and partner with the Native Nations for whom Illinois is their ancestral home

The commission released its report in the summer of 2019. In September 2019, Jones brought together the Chancellor’s Executive Leadership Committee and “additional campus stakeholders” to come up with an implementation plan.

There were some problems with the makeup of the initial commission; several former racist mascot actors and racist mascot enthusiasts were on the committee. Their input is very clearly felt in the report. The second committee — the one to figure out how to implement the changes — was almost exclusively people serving in University Administration, and only included two faculty members, both from the American Indian Studies program. Input from a broader cross section of faculty, in particular, would have been helpful, especially to center the student and faculty experience of living, working, and being educated under the legacy of the racist mascot.

Nevertheless, it’s important that the U of I has a blueprint, even a flawed one, to move toward that more inclusive future. Though some of the components of this report genuinely induce eye-rolls, there are plenty of promising proposed changes. You can find a link to the entire report here. There are many points of discussion in the document, but we’ve narrowed down three main ideas worth highlighting below.

1. Finally!

This sort of report and plan of action is long overdue, so props to Chancellor Jones for actually prioritizing these conversations with the intention of enacting meaningful change.

There are two timelines for implementing these changes: short (0-1 years) and mid (2-3 years). Certainly, some of these larger changes and projects will take at least three years, maybe longer. It’s difficult to applaud a three-year timeline when we’ve already been waiting three decades: We want change, and we want it now.

However, we all know bureaucracy works on its own timeline, so as a community invested in this progress we must continue to hold it accountable to its promises.

2. It panders to racist mascot apologists and donors.

It doesn’t take a close reader to see that the report panders to donor alumni and racist mascot-enthusiasts. Instead of centering the experiences and voices of Native Americans, the findings from the working groups equivocates on the past. Take, for example, the emphasis on reiterating the original “intent” of the racist mascot. The word “intent” appears seven times in the document, and in all cases is used to buffer the impact (appears five times in the document) the mascot has had on real people.

It is clear that “engaging stakeholders” is of utmost importance to the U of I, and that alumni (read: donors) are included in these processes, and have many avenues to express their love for the racist mascot. In key area number three, point b states: “Facilitate a curated space for a public posting of memories, both positive and negative, of the intent and impact of the Chief traditions” (emphasis ours). Is it really necessary to give space for “positive” memories? Positive for whom at whose expense? The experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have been negative by their own admissions, but to frame the discussion around memories in this way only furthers their disassociation with this process by marking them as too sensitive, as outsiders, and as troublemakers. 

Perhaps most damaging is the recommendation to “develop a formal, permanent statement from the University that avoids vilifying any individuals and owns the complex history of the former symbol” (emphasis ours). This is tricky language, because on first read it seems reasonable. Sure, no one singular person was or is responsible for this sort of ongoing minstrelsy. But individuals were responsible, and it is important to say so publicly. The symbol did not just drop from the sky and make itself the mascot. Individuals made those choices. Those individuals worked within a system that would protect them and continually do harm to those they wanted to keep out of that system. It is critical to at least acknowledge that.

3. But…It creates space for displaced tribes and Indigenous people.

One of the key components to this plan is to “honor and partner with the Native Nations for whom Illinois is their ancestral home.” If you’ve attended any lectures on campus (Zoom or IRL), you may have noticed that many departments begin with a land acknowledgement. This gesture takes a moment to note that the land on which we sit, stand, live, and work, is not ours, was not ours, and shall never be ours. It gives space and sound to the names of the tribes who lived and loved and died here.

As we know from the racist mascot, the ways in which some people “honor” those different from themselves isn’t always honorable. White people and instituions are still learning how to honor non-white people, and franky, the results haven’t been great. The promise of partnering with Native Nations is the key component. It’s about using accumulated power to lift up those from whom power was taken. It’s about using what you have (a world-class institution of higher learning) to make the lives of others better. The plan includes offering in-state tuition to Indigenous students in federally-recognized tribal nations, and increasing the number of full scholarships available to them. Offering scholarships and actively recruiting Indigenous students is essential to ensuring a large minority of students on campus, as there is evidence to point to the negative effects of tokenism and the lack of support students encounter when they don’t have a community on campus. 

It is further expanded upon by building networks for “social entrepreneurship or internship programs” to help Indigenous students return home with their degrees to work in their communities. The implementation plan includes a four-tiered breakdown prioritizing relationships with Indigenous communities in the United States, centering the relationship with the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, whose ancestral home was here in Illinois. 

Additional acknowledgements of displaced Native tribes come in the forms of on campus programming in places like the Native American House and American Indian Studies department, as well as places like Krannert Art Museum, the Alumni Center, and the potential development of a “cultural plaza.”

Finally, it is very clear about building up the American Indian Studies program. It’s also clear about recruiting Indigenous faculty, which may or may not work explicitly toward building AIS, but having faculty who reflect the students — and vice versa — is critical to the successes and retention of both groups. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top image by Anna Longworth.

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