After decades of controversy, the University of Illinois will be retiring their venerable mascot, Chief Illiniwek. His last public appearance will be on Wednesday, at the last men’s basketball home game.
Frankly, I’m disappointed.
I attended the U of I for graduate school. I’ve never been one for college athletics, fervent school loyalty, or any of the other hallmarks of attending a Big 10 school. However, you can’t live in Champaign-Urbana for that long without becoming familiar with the Chief. He was the symbol of the school for 81 years. I’m sad to see him go.
Now, as a card-carrying liberal, I’m supposed to be doing a victory dance about this. Finally, this demeaning caricature of the noble Native American will be expunged from our sight, allowing our oppressed indigenous population to regain a somewhat larger shred of the dignity the white man has stolen from them. But I just can’t buy into it.
This is a conference with such mascots like Spartans, Boilermakers, Hoosiers, and Golden Gophers (I’m serious, Golden Gophers). These creatures appear on bags, sweatshirts, and particularly, on the sidelines of sporting events.
Michigan State Spartan
Minnesota Golden Gopher
And over in South Bend, the Fighting Irish:
When compared to these cartoonish buffoons, I think the Chief comes off looking pretty damn good. He only appeared at halftime during home football and basketball games. He never said a word. He was clothed in fairly authentic Indian dress, and he executed a routine with athleticism and grace.
For a ton of other pictures of Chief Illiniwek, visit chiefilliniwekphotos.blogspot.com.
I’m not going to try and defend any of the other dubious Native American mascots out there. The buffoonish grinning Cleveland Indians logo, the Washington Redskins, or the Atlanta Braves mascot. I don’t think they’re even in the same league with the Chief in being depicted with any sort of class. And it bothers me a bit that Chief Illiniwek is being lumped in with the rest of them as a racist caricature.
I’m coming to the conclusion that any depiction of a Native American by a non-Native American is going to be considered offensive. No matter how carefully thought out, no matter how respectfully performed, and no matter how long it’s been in use and how beloved it may be. And to be absolutely pragmatic about it, this is a small price for society to pay when compared to the systematic extermination and marginalization of Native Americans in this country. In that sense, the loss of Native American mascots is inevitable, and in the long run, necessary.
But I am still saddened to see the Chief go. So long, big guy.