'Critical conversation' on Chief brings a bit of closure if no resolution


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CHAMPAIGN — Nothing was resolved, but Tuesday's conversation about Chief Illiniwek may have provided a bit of "closure" 11 years after the Chief's last halftime dance, some participants said.

The hard work is still ahead, but Chancellor Robert Jones remained optimistic following the two-hour event — which was moderated by the Rev. Allan Boesak, a visiting scholar at the UI and, nearly three decades ago, a leader in the drive to end apartheid and embrace reconciliation in South Africa.

Given how contentious the Chief issue has been, "I honestly can say it could not have gone any better," Jones said afterward.

The event drew 220 people — about 20 percent of them students, 20 percent from the community and 60 percent UI employees, organizers said. The crowd heard from two presenters, then broke into small groups to discuss questions about the impact of Native American imagery on campus, the obstacles to progress and what must happen to address them and allow the community to move forward.

"There were some individuals at certain tables that six months ago there was no way in heck they were sitting down together," said former Chief Illiniwek portrayer Dan Maloney, one of the presenters. "Whether or not any minds were changed or they were moved closer toward a common viewpoint is up for debate. The fact that they were able to sit down and have a respectful conversation is a huge step forward."

A history lesson

Jones opened his remarks by noting that the university sits on the land of Native American nations, and it has a responsibility to honor them and their history.

The other presenter, Kevin Gover of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, who is a citizen of the Pawnee tribe in Oklahoma, said the custom of white Americans dressing up as American Indians traces back to colonial days. During the Boston Tea Party, colonists dressed as Indians as "an expression of their American-ness. They were saying to the British, 'We are no longer one of you,'" Gover said. Likewise, many organizations across the young country took Indian names.

Later, people imitated native culture as a "lament at the disappearance of Indians from the American landscape," he said, even as Indian lands were taken over by the U.S. government. The idea of the "proud and fierce" Indians morphed into a justification for defeating them in battle, "to pave the way for civilization," he said.

"You can sort of see this weird place that Native Americans have in this national psyche: We love them and we hate them," Gover said.

The early 20th century was a devastating time for Native Americans, as the government took away "every element of what made them Indians," Gover said. Indians lost about 90 million acres of treaty land between 1887 and 1934, he said.

"Indian kids by the thousands were being taken from their families and shipped away to boarding schools, many of them in very remote locations, often to never see their families again," he said.

Indians were forbidden to practice their religion — "there was no First Amendment in Indian country," he said — and tribal governments were outlawed. The Department of Interior imposed regulations allowing federal bureaucrats to act as legislators, judges and prison wardens for Indians, with "control over every element of Indian life," he said.

"They were out to destroy the tribes by destroying everything that made their people Indians," he said.

It was during this time, when Indian communities could have used the help of universities and other allies to fight for justice, that mascots emerged full force, "not just in universities but in our professional sports teams and in high schools across the country," he said.

"Hopefully that helps you understand why, when we hear that the mascots were intended to honor us, that rings a little hollow to us. That wasn't the kind of honoring that was needed when it was needed most," he said.

Gover said other universities contended with this issue decades ago — including the University of Oklahoma, Stanford and Dartmouth, and followed up with a commitment to recruit Native American students.

Looking to future

"My request to you is simply that — that we look for ways that this university might serve these communities that still have great needs. This is a mighty university," he said. "Indian people, while our condition is hardly desperate in the way it was 100 years ago, could still use powerful friends."

That appeared to be one area of common ground Tuesday. Maloney argued that the UI should use the passion for the Chief to encourage more education about and outreach to Native Americans. He spoke against "erasure" of the Chief's history and said the UI has to balance passion for the Chief with acknowledging historical wrongs.

He also recalled how he heard about the UI's decision to retire the Chief in 2007, when he was the official portrayer: on the radio, via WDWS' "Penny for your Thoughts" program.

Just the opportunity for Chief supporters to join Tuesday's conversation provided some closure, he said, adding, "This needed to happen 10 years ago."

Jones said he hopes to build on that and continue with some kind of "reconciliation" going forward.

The UI will pull information from the small-group conversations and look for common themes, then use that as a framework to map out what the next steps might be, he said.

"There was a lot of overlap in some of these recommendations," Jones said. "There were ideas about traditions, ideas about mascots, ideas about healing, ideas about telling the truth about how this tradition came about in the first place," he said. "Notwithstanding all of that, for many folks in our community, it's offensive, and how do you use this as an opportunity to think about how do we redefine this university as an open, caring university who cares greatly about native people?"

Still, it was clear that disagreements remain.

Alex Dozier, a former unofficial Chief portrayer, was appreciative of the conversation and said he hopes it continues with even more voices represented.

"I'm a little worried about the direction it might take. I still think a mascot would be very harmful to this campus. I hope this isn't just a tenuous excuse to reignite that debate," he said.

University of Illinois Professor Carol Spindel, author of the book "Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy Over American Indian Mascots," said the conversation was an "important and valuable first step."

But she also said the UI needs to get rid of "all parts of the Chief" and find a new mascot.

"There needs to be subsequent actions to this. This has hurt the university badly," she said.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

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