Saturday, February 17, 2007
From The Chicago Tribune…
Illiniwek’s last dance
It took almost 20 years and some strong-arm encouragement from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, but the University of Illinois has finally agreed to stop “honoring” Native Americans with a prancing caricature in a feathered headdress and blue-and-orange war paint.
Chief Illiniwek, the university mascot since 1926, will dance his last dance at Wednesday’s men's basketball game.
It’s long past time for this issue--and Illiniwek--to go away. Over the years, the debate has occupied the time and energy of students, university administrators and trustees, alumni, the Illinois General Assembly, the U.S. Senate and at least two governors. All of them have more important things to worry about, such as studying for finals or running the country. The squabble over the chief is a distraction and a poor reflection on the state’s flagship academic institution.
There were some noble arguments on both sides, especially in the beginning.
The chief’s defenders said he was a symbol of strength, valor and dignity. They wanted to preserve a revered tradition honoring the state’s rich Indian heritage. Those who wanted Illiniwek gone said his antics--designed to fire up the fans at halftime--were not respectful of Native American religions and customs.
In the end the struggle was more about whether the forces of political correctness would compel a beloved institution to retire in shame. How else to explain the self-righteous but disingenuous insistence on “honoring” Native Americans when many Native Americans themselves objected? The argument that no offense should be taken because none was intended is a little like saying the aggrieved parties can’t take a joke.
Across the country, the same controversy has played out more than 2,000 times since the 1970s. Elementary schools, high schools, colleges and even pro sports teams have changed their names or made other concessions to correct offensive stereotypes.
The University of Illinois needed an extra nudge from the NCAA, which since 2005 has prohibited the school from hosting postseason athletic events because of its “hostile and abusive” mascot.
Experience elsewhere suggests otherwise, but there are still worries that the university’s multibillion-dollar fundraising campaign will suffer as angry alumni seek to punish trustees for capitulating to the NCAA. That would be a poor way to show support for the school--or for Native Americans.