Time to Say Goodbye to Chief Illiniwek–Finally!

Mark Mulder

As the NCA A basketball tournament neared, the issue of Native American mascots once again came to the forefront of the college sporting world. In late February the two University of Illinois students who portray Chief Illiniwek filed a lawsuit to end NCA A sanctions against the school. They are basing their claim on freedom of speech issues. A day later the board of trustees at the University announced that they were retiring the mascot.

Some background: In early August of 2005, the NCA A banned colleges from using Native American mascots and logos at postseason events–deeming them “hostile and abusive.” Moreover, these institutions were banned from hosting postseason events as well. The decision, of course, has been mostly derided by the 18 Division I schools that still utilize Native American mascots. Many, in fact, appealed the decision.

In addition, a spate of writers, columnists, and journalists has mocked the NCA A for the ban. Some have described the action as “nannyism” and lumped the action with a larger trend of bureaucracies poking their nose into business they shouldn’t. Others have explained it as political correctness run amok–a bunch of academics with too much time on their hands worrying about sensitivity to matters that are extremely minor. Many of these aforementioned writers do deliver some seemingly compelling arguments. I will reiterate a few, as best as I am able, by way of example.

One criticism of the NCA A’s postseason ban has been to posit that it is counterproductive. That, in fact, mascots offer exposure to Native Americans that the rest of the country otherwise would not receive. In this way, the mascots are an educational tool and a mode of cultural heritage.

A second criticism has been that the ban would be more compelling if the mascots were actually offensive. However, the vast majority of those in question could actually be deemed proud and honorable. Where’s the offense? It’s not like we’re dealing with the grinning Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians or the patently offensive term “Redskins” of the professional football team from Washington, DC.

A third criticism has to do with the “slippery slope” theory. In other words, where does this end? The reasoning goes like this: If we ban Native American mascots, won’t we have to reconsider all other mascots as well? Shouldn’t people of Scandinavian descent be offended by the National Football League’s Minnesota “Vikings” ? What about Holland, Michigan’s Hope College “Flying Dutchmen” ? By this logic almost all mascots could be considered offensive.

Taken as a whole, these three arguments do make you initially wonder why the NCA A wasted so much time and effort in formulating such a dubious policy. However, a point-by-point examination finds each to be somewhat fallacious.

First, regarding the argument that mascots and logos offer exposure, it’s significant to consider exactly the kind of representation we’re dealing with here. Almost uniformly these mascots have historically been hostile or, at the very least, stoic-looking warriors. These could best be described as caricatures. In truth, Native American nations exude a much deeper cultural richness and complexity than the one-dimensional mascot would portray. In the end, it seems quite incongruous that academies of higher learning and deeper understanding would be so complicit in a practice so obviously misleading and unenlightening. It is also why the second argument, that current college mascots are largely inoffensive, also fails. The perpetuation of myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions is, ultimately, incredibly offensive.

Finally, the “slippery slope” theory. The major difference: it’s implausible that colleges like the University of Illinois (Fighting Illini) and the University of North Dakota (Fighting Sioux) were founded by the Illini nation or the Sioux nation, respectively. No, the white founders of those institutions pilfered the identity of a local tribe. When you consider the suffering inflicted on these same tribes by the United States government and white settlers, it’s really a case of adding insult to an already lethal injury. Moreover, the examples of the Minnesota Vikings and Hope College can be rendered moot as well. First, Hope College was founded by Dutch Americans. Second, Minnesota has historically had a high percentage of population that traces Scandinavian ancestry. In both cases, the founders appropriated their own ethnic identity. When you take on someone else’s identity for your own use, it can be best described as misappropriation.

In the end, the NCA A probably didn’t go far enough. First, they are allowing individual institutions to appeal the ban and maintain the mascots if they can secure permission from the respective tribes. Three universities have already pursued this option. Such a policy, though, irresponsibly puts the onus on the tribes. If the NCA A really believes that such imagery is wrong and erodes an atmosphere of respect, why allow for special dispensations? Secondly, if Native American mascots and logos are offensive in the post-season, aren’t they just as much in the regular season? The reliance on stereotypes and caricatures severely undermines the integrity of institutions that claim to seek enlightenment and understanding. Ultimately, these mascots are an example of continued injustice for Native American people and should be done away with at every juncture–regular and post season–and at every level–high school, college, and professional. <img src=”uploads/2287.jpg”>

Mark Mulder is assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.