Column: Putting away childish thing

By Sam Harding-Forrester

The NCAA recently chose to ban schools bearing controversial American Indian imagery, such as our own Chief Illiniwek, from hosting postseason athletic games. The decision has reignited a 20-year-old controversy that is now a campus tradition as unavoidable as Illiniwek himself. Wide-eyed freshmen have already been inundated with exhortations to preserve our beleaguered Chief, which emanate from the ranks of sport-proud frat houses, nostalgic alumni and traditionalist locals. Dedicated pro-Chiefers mean business: tell them the Chief is offensive to American Indians, and you’ll likely learn a thing or two about being offended yourself.

The most visible conduit for protest against the Chief, meanwhile, has been a rotating conglomeration of decidedly non-American Indian students, hurling their strident invectives at the world with the passionate narcissism of Youth With a Cause. Pro-Chiefers have long suspected that such protestations are really about how the campus’ coffee-and-cannabis crowd wishes to see itself. On this view, the Chief skirmish simply serves as a vehicle for self-righteous radicalism – a hipster accessory for preening left-wingers desperately searching for something to be right about.

The sanctimonious mewling of certain Chief opponents, however, doesn’t change the fact that their position is correct. Amid all the digressive fisticuffs between anti-Chief activists and pro-Chief traditionalists, the group most relevant to the Chief debate, American Indians themselves, gets lost in the fray. This is unfortunate, as American Indians groups have generally denounced the Chief as a perverse bit of cultural kleptomania.

Therefore, despite the good intentions with which Chief Illiniwek was first installed in 1926, the ongoing use of American Indian ceremonial imagery in a commercial and sporting context expresses a galling lack of respect for an already victimized culture. This insult is only exacerbated when it is excused as a “tribute” to American Indians. Worse yet, when the “tribute” argument is toppled by the near-unanimity of American Indians opposition to the Chief, some supporters suggest the Chief tradition need not involve American Indians interests at all. American Indians unsettled by the Chief are effectively told that their own cultural imagery is none of their business.

Now, there is only so much damage that can be done by a mascot, or “symbol,” to use the anodyne term favored by the University’s semanticists. It is not as if the Chief, with his ham-fisted halftime dance, reaches into the ether to quash the employment prospects of American Indians, or to erode their basic Constitutional rights. But attempts to trivialize the issue by calling the Chief a harmless symbol are willfully missing the point. Symbols matter, in both private emotion and public politics. And they matter especially when used by public institutions with a clear mandate for equal accessibility. It is only through some gymnastic feat of illogic that pro-Chiefers can dismiss Chief Illiniwek’s offensiveness by denying the sensitive nature of symbols, while simultaneously holding that Illiniwek is so central to the fabric of our community that he must be retained.

Nonetheless, our most aggressive pro-Chiefers continue to actively flaunt this incendiary mascot, egged on by the stubbornness characteristic of those who have been wrong for an embarrassingly long stretch of time. The extreme few among them established the “Honor the Chief Society” in 2001 and squander time and money on it that might be better spent scrapbooking cutouts from Norman Rockwell calendars. If our young anti-Chief protesters are motivated by anything besides their need for political soapboxes, it is surely exasperation in seeing Chief supporters cling with such tenacity to a position so blind to cultural sensitivities.

There are, of course, many moral dilemmas in life of inestimably greater import than the Chief Illiniwek controversy. But, there are also very few such dilemmas for which the right course of action is so glaringly obvious. It’s time pro-Chiefers acknowledged the forgivable error that has been made, and ceased championing this carelessly plundered tradition – which is fast losing all chance of being retired with its initial good intentions untarnished.

Sam Harding-Forrester is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]