Guest Commentary | Pitchforks also out for Chief

Guest Commentary | Pitchforks also out for Chief


Karl Rove's April 5, 2018, Wall Street Journal opinion piece, "The Pitchforks Are Out for McKinley," exposes the harm being done in Arcata, Calif., via labeling and false narratives. Here are examples of harm right here in Illinois. The first example covers grievous harm that has already been done, while the second example covers harm that is currently in the making.

In 1926, Chief Illiniwek was conceived as a sacred symbol of the University of Illinois — representing the heroic spirit of Illinois Indians. The Chief was not considered by the Chief's creator, the late Raymond Dvorak, to be a mascot in the usual sense.

The same was true for the 36 outstanding Illini students who were honored to be selected to portray the Chief. Nevertheless, false narratives labeling the Chief as a mascot surfaced in recent years. False labels, once applied and steadfastly reinforced, are difficult to remove. Unfortunately, such labeling led to the Chief's official banishment by the UI in 2007.

The Chief's banishment was aided and abetted by the NCAA. The organization abused its power while serving its own self-interest by diverting attention away from ever-heightening concerns about its money-making exploitation of college athletes, particularly minority athletes. Also contributing to the banishment were divisive mischaracterizations of Chief Illiniwek as a mascot in the one-sided documentary "In Whose Honor?" by Jay Rosenstein.

Rosenstein continued his anti-Chief rhetoric in a July 17, 2017, Huffington Post piece, "Twenty Years of Fighting Native American Mascots with 'In Whose Honor?'" — rhetoric that was promulgated by Chris Quintana in a front page story in the March 30, 2018, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The story's title and subtitle set the stage for an unbalanced mascot-label-rich narrative, to wit: "The Mascot is Fiction, The War is Real" and "Why a made-up retired mascot still inspires pain and pride at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign."

Paraphrasing Rove, the anti-Chief Illiniwek rhetoric has been so unbalanced and warped that only willful ignorance and runaway political correctness explains their destructive action. And the beat goes on.

In his April 7 front page Daily Herald column, "Maine West revisiting use of Native American mascot," Chacoor Koop calls attention to the dilemma faced by educational institutions, beyond Urbana-Champaign, that have used or are still using Native American images to symbolize their schools and/or their athletic programs.

Pejorative labeling of imagery and portrayals as run-of-the-mill mascots, rather than as symbols of Native American honor, strength, courage, integrity and leadership, has been devastating to say the very least — leading to the loss of a potentially significant educational opportunity. False narratives, mischaracterization, political correctness, and a way of thinking based on "me and mine, and survival of the fittest" have blinded many to this opportunity.

What seems to be required for reconciling conflicting views, as well as moving toward the future with a less-divided nation, is no less than a shift to a way of thinking based on "we and ours, and survival of us altogether" — a challenging shift that can be brought about by way of the unifying paradigm "we are one." Here's why.

In the 19th-century era of Manifest Destiny, American settlers widely believed that they were destined to expand the country across North America without regard for the natural land rights of Native Americans. This way of thinking created a cultural divide, a deep wound that is still with us today.

Schools utilizing Native American symbols have a built-in segue to an educational imperative — to educate their students about the painful past history of Native Americans. This education would not only be a big step toward healing the wound of the cultural divide, but also a critical step toward creating our common future with a more unified American citizenry.

A good example of educational measures that can be taken can be found in the work of the Honor the Chief Society that is dedicated to preserving the honor and tradition of Chief Illiniwek.

Frank G. Splitt, a former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the author of "An Odyssey of Reform Initiatives, 1986-2015: From Engineering, K-12, and Higher Education, to the Environment, National Information Infrastructure, and Collegiate Athletics." Splitt's wife is Raymond Dvorak's niece.