No Chief means clean slate for new class

By Lydia Khuri

To the Class of 2011: You are the first class in more than 80 years that will not be represented by Chief Illiniwek. Unfortunately, I see many students still wearing Chief shirts. I don’t assume what it means to each of you, but I encourage everyone to reflect on its history.

Our University was not unique in using the image of an American Indian to represent the qualities of “goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage, and dignity.” Other schools and organizations used – and still use – such images.

To many, this seems like a good thing. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, we see that this version of “the Indian” developed only after it seemed to non-American Indians that actual American Indian peoples were vanquished. This romantic representation is the flip-side of the brutal characterization so clearly expressed by one U.S. Army surgeon to his wife in 1866 and used to justify subjugation: “They are of no earthly good and the sooner they are swept from the land the better for civilization. … I do not think they can be turned and made good law abiding citizens any more than coyotes can be used for shepherd dogs.”

Most of us today would object to this view, but the two views, the idealized and the denigrating, are thoroughly connected. They both undermine seeing American Indian peoples as real.

Many may also assert that they were not responsible for what was done in the past. Although true, if we continue to display the former symbol, we continue to use American Indian peoples as decorations, mascots, symbols and objects onto which we project our own aspirations, or worse, our own brutality.

Chief Illiniwek was created in 1926 to rouse school spirit during football games. Community symbols are important, but when they are intimately linked to the decimation of others, we owe it to them and ourselves to reconsider. You, the Class of 2011, have a clean slate. I hope you don’t ignore history.

Lydia Khuri

Academic professional