‘In Whose Honor’ voices concerns about Native American mascots

University of Illinois Journalism Professor Jay Rosenstein’s documentary “In Whose Honor” screened at the University of Chicago on Monday, May 12. The film, which was originally released in 1997, voices the concerns of several Native Americans, primarily the concerns of Charlene Teters, who opposes the use of Native Americans as mascots. 

The film was shown as part of a Heritage Series at the University of Chicago, and featured remarks from Teters, who is acting president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. 

“In Whose Honor” focuses on the University’s former mascot, Chief Illiniwek. It follows Teter’s efforts to remove the mascot, which began when she came to the University for her graduate studies. The movie also spotlights other advocates who fought against what they called an offensive, inaccurate representation of Native American culture.

It was ten years after the film was released that the University of Illinois Board of Trustees made the decision to officially retire the Chief. 

Rosenstein said that hearing Teters speak motivated him to make the film.

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“I heard her give a talk somewhere, and I was really surprised and shocked about what she had to say, because I had never up until that point thought about how a Native American person might feel about that mascot,” Rosenstein said. “I was so moved by hearing her speak that basically the first goal of the film was, I just thought, ‘More people need to hear her.’”

Rosenstein said he hoped that activists involved in efforts to retire American Indian mascots would take the documentary with them when they gave talks to show it to attendees. He believed it would be a useful tool for activists to help educate people on the sentiments of Native Americans. 

“The audience I wanted to reach was anyone who would be open-minded enough to listen,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein said he understood the limits to which his film would probably have an effect. 

“To a certain degree, I knew that the opinions here were pretty much fixed in stone, and it probably wasn’t going to change a lot of people’s minds here, because so many people had already taken sides in the issue,” he said.  

But the film was helpful to those who felt strongly about the retirement of the Chief. 

Beverly Smith, assistant director of Native American House, believes the film is a valuable means to inform people on why many Native Americans feel the mascot needed to be removed. 

“We encourage all students to watch the documentary, ‘In Whose Honor,’” Smith said. 

She said that the Native American House primarily focuses on educating everyone and anyone who is interested in learning about Native American culture and events. 

Smith also said that Native Americans on campus want to help people understand why the University reached the decision to retire the Chief and why Native American House supports that decision. 

Rosenstein’s film has helped illustrate that point for many Native Americans who believe American Indian mascots are offensive.  

Jamie Magleby Singson, director of Native American House, said another focus for the Native American community is working with international students. 

“We want to help them see contemporary Native Americans in modernity versus what they’ve been exposed to in the media,” Singson said. “We also want them to see the rich fabric of long-lasting diversity in the U.S.”

Now Native Americans on campus are looking to move forward and educate people on the current issues Native American students face seven years after the University’s decision to retire the Chief.

Smith said enrollment numbers for Native American students at the University are at a 10-year all-time low.

There are a total of 31 undergraduate, graduate and professional Native American students at the University, according to the Division of Management Information’s spring 2014 statistical abstract of 10-day enrollment. 

“It is a problem,” Smith said. “I don’t know whose responsibility it is, whether it’s the people in charge of enrollment or individual colleges, but it’s a problem.”

For now, Native American House will focus its efforts to move beyond the false representations of American Indians and to establish understanding and education to all members of the community. 

Abrar can be reached at [email protected].