“In Whose Honor?” panel seeks to raise awareness regarding Chief Illiniwek

By Samuel J. Cox

When the University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted for Chief Illiniwek to dance his last in 2007, under threat of NCAA sanctions, it seemed that retiring the fictitious Chief’s name, image and regalia would put an end to the controversy surrounding the mascot.

However, the Chief continues to be a lingering presence on campus.

The Library Diversity Committee and the College of Media co-sponsored a screening and three-person panel discussion of the documentary “In Whose Honor?” Friday in the Main Library. The documentary explores the notion of Chief Illiniwek and his relationship to the community.

Looking to examine the negative impact of the Chief, the panel gave “a voice to the people who feel that the Chief is not appropriate, and who feel that he needs to be fully retired, rather than partially,” said Associate Professor Cindy Ingold, the panel’s moderator and gender and multicultural services librarian.

Directed and produced by panelist and College of Media Professor Jay Rosenstein, the documentary first aired on the PBS series “P.O.V.” in 1997. He said it is “impossible to quantify the amount of influence it has had” in the 18 years since its release.

Cindy Kelly, head of Library Human Resources, said they wanted “to show this film because it had a great impact when it was first shown in ‘97 … (yet) the Chief is still alive and well, however you feel about that.”

Screened to an audience of approximately 60, the film follows University graduate student and mother of two, Charlene Teters. She became the “main native leader,” Rosenstein said, speaking out against the use of Native American imagery in sports.

Her mission to protect her cultural identity began in Assembly Hall, now the State Farm Center, where she witnessed her children suffer “a blow” to see the regalia they had been taught to respect “trivialized … (and) reduced to entertainment” by the Chief.

Panelist Joycelyn Landrum-Brown, adjunct assistant professor in psychology and program coordinator in Diversity and Social Justice Education, said Rosenstein’s project provided “a counter-narrative” capable of “changing the minds … (of) people who don’t want to understand power, privilege and marginalisation.”

Agreeing with arguments purporting the Chief is a misappropriation of Native American culture perpetuating harmful ethnic stereotyping, Landrum-Brown said “the symbol represents the genocide of Native Americans and white supremacy, not honor or tradition.”

She continued that the future lay in further “educational efforts … to challenge the myths and misinformation put out by the people who want to keep the Chief.”

Ivan Dozier, graduate student in ACES, is the current student selected and trained to don the mock-eagle feather headdress and buckskin regalia as the “Unofficial Chief.”

Rather than performing a dance to the “Three-In-One,” an arrangement of three original songs played by The Marching Illini, as in the past, he instead appears unsanctioned and unexpected in the stands during select sporting events.

He accused the University of attempting to skew people toward “the anti-Chief agenda” presented in Rosenstein’s documentary.

Dozier said he would have loved to have been invited to speak at the panel, as there has “never been someone who has argued against the Chief who had all of their facts straight.”

Part-Cherokee, the 38th portrayer of Chief Illiniwek and member of the RSOs Students for Chief Illiniwek and the Honor the Chief Society said he hopes “the University comes to their senses a little bit and recognizes how much effort we have put into making (the Chief) a respectful symbol, and how much effort we’ve put into … education and outreach.”

However, Ingold suggested that many people may not be educated on the topic.

“It’s not that they are meaning to be racist or uncivil, or whatever word you might choose, I just think that they haven’t thought about it, and they don’t realize the impact,” she said.

The final panelist, Jamie Singson, director of the Native American House, concurred that “the (University) hasn’t helped our students understand what this (symbol) means.”

He further pointed to the lack of significant growth in Native American enrollment in recent years as evidence that the University was failing to create “a climate that is accessible to all … (and) imposing on equal access to education by all.”

He said it was to the University’s shame that there had been “no statement of how to move forward” since retiring the Chief, meaning a culture had been allowed to form that kept the Chief alive, in apparel and in subtle tributes at sporting events.

Singson suggested that there was no excuse for this, as the University of Oklahoma’s recent expulsion of its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter following racist behavior “showed us that a university can declare what (it) stands for.”

Rosenstein said the issue of Chief Illiniwek “can never go away until the … idiotic, racist … ‘Chief music’ (the “Three-in-One”) goes away at events. It triggers a racist response.”

He concluded that the continued existence of Chief Illiniwek on campus was “almost 100 percent … a failure of leadership at the University of Illinois … (it) has never ever stepped up.”

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