Column: Chief Illiniwek: NCAA should be applauded

By Matt Simmons

Hostile: unfavorable to health or well-being; inhospitable or adverse.”

“Abusive: characterized by improper or wrongful use.”

The NCAA was correct to reject the University’s appeal to be taken off the list of schools with “hostile and abusive” mascots. Using this definition, the Chief must be considered hostile. The fact that the Native American House, the Department of American Indian Studies, and the Peoria tribe – the only remaining members of the confederation that included the Illini – all oppose the Chief proves that it is a hostile symbol. Why else would they all be opposed to it?

According to Cheyenne poet and writer Suzan Shown Harjo, stereotypes such as the Chief are unfavorable to the well-being of native people because they “break the spirit” of American Indians. She argues that this is detrimental because it is “easier to take property and labor from broken people” and “easier to force them to accept new religions, languages, national allegiances.” In other words, stereotypes make it easier to subjugate American Indians.

The Chief can also be considered an abusive use of Native American imagery. The symbol characterizes Indians stereotypically. It reinforces the idea of the noble savage, a brave, stoic warrior. Here on campus, the Native American House claims that the symbol is inappropriate because stereotypes “confine the perception of an entire people to a limited and narrow existence.”

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Now that we have determined that the Chief is both hostile and abusive, was the NCAA right to punish the University for having such a mascot? Some dismiss the NCAA action as political grandstanding, performing ostentatiously so as to impress an audience. Who is the NCAA trying to impress? Many polls show that most Americans, especially sports fans, favor the use of American Indians as mascots. The NCAA is doing the exact opposite of grandstanding; they are standing up for a marginalized minority despite the fact that they will alienate the majority.

Others argue that the NCAA overstepped its jurisdiction. On Monday, the DI editorial board characterized the NCAA’s actions as an infringement on the University’s right to self-determination. I cannot believe that anyone could have the nerve to write in opposition to the interests of American Indian people and complain about the infringement of self-determination.

What about the self-determination of the American Indians who work and attend school here? What about the self-determination of the Peoria tribe? The Peoria tribe called on the University to “recognize the demeaning nature . of Chief Illiniwek” and retire the symbol. The Peoria people have a right to ultimately determine if they want their culture to be molded into a stereotypical depiction of American Indians and used as entertainment during college sporting events.

The NCAA is not interfering with the University’s self-determination. If the University loves its honorable symbol so much, it could withdraw from the NCAA and face the consequences. Chief supporters should be willing to make sacrifices for their cause. The NCAA has the right to regulate NCAA championship activity. If the NCAA feels that one of its members is perpetuating a harmful stereotype it is not only reasonable for them to do everything they can to make them stop, it is expected.

Retiring the Chief might lead to a decrease in University income, but that is not a certainty. If we can find a better symbol, sales of University merchandise might increase. Even if retiring the Chief will lead to less income for the University, it does not justify the University’s marginalization of American Indians. Profitable oppression is still oppression.

Even if the NCAA is infringing on the University’s self-determination, that does not mean they are acting inappropriately. The United States infringed on the self-determination of states in the South by passing civil rights legislation. The injustice that blacks faced in the Jim Crow South was too severe to remain neutral. In the same light, the NCAA feels that it cannot allow the University to appropriate the history and culture of American Indians for the purposes of halftime entertainment.

Matt Simmons is a senior in LAS. He will be missed very much as he heads to law school at the University of Chicago next fall. He can be reached at [email protected].