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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hail to the Chief

In the past, this fearless blog has discussed war, abortion, euthanasia, torture, and Republicans.  We’ve invited applause and brickbats from all quarters.  But we’ve had our limits, too.  For not until today has this blog dared to address the truly controversial and disturbing question of . . .

Chief Illiniwek.

But before I get to “the Chief,” I just want to point out that although I know less about college basketball than I know about smooth jazz, I have Illinois beating North Carolina in the NCAA finals.  In fact, if I were taking part in this March Madness competition among sports savants, I would be in second place with 860 points.  And I think that the really amazing thing about the Illini’s comeback against Arizona last Saturday was not that they erased a 15-point deficit in four minutes, but that they erased a eight-point deficit in eleven seconds.  So: go Illini.

And let me join King Kaufman in offering kudos to the University of Illinois for deciding to leave the Chief behind when the Illini travel to St. Louis this weekend.

I lived with the Chief for twelve years when I taught at Illinois, and for most of those years I didn’t think much about him.  Sure, it’s embarrassing to have a white college kid in Native regalia dancing around a football stadium at halftime, but it really wasn’t on my list of the world’s Top Thousand Injustices.  What astonished me, though, was the depth of emotion on the pro-Chief side.  It wasn’t the in-your-face, I’m-politically-incorrect-and-lovin’-it demeanor of the defenders of the Confederate flag; it was a weird combination of truculence and sappy sentimentality.  Yes, I know some of the Stars and Bars fans can get weepy about their “heritage,” too.  But this was qualitatively different: these people honestly believed that they were paying solemn tribute to Native American people and culture, and that the Chief was a dignified figure whose halftime dances were august and reverential remembrances of the Illini of yesteryear.  (Though I will never forget the acerbic graduate student who said, “you know, if historical accuracy is what they’re after, they should symbolically kill the Chief after every dance.") Conservative politicians tried to pass a state law designating the Chief as the symbol of the university, and local figures in and around Champaign-Urbana organized a “Save the Chief” campaign that continues to this day.  (You can check out the “Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation” website for handy pro-Chief material.) The intensity of that campaign has driven more than one chancellor from office at the University of Illinois, because for most of the people in a fifty-mile radius around Champaign-Urbana, the most important thing about the University of Illinois is not that its faculty in the sciences invented the transistor and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, nor that its programs and conferences in the humanities are internationally known, nor even that its extraordinary library is the third largest in the nation, behind only Harvard and the Library of Congress.  In the prairie precincts of the Prairie State, they don’t give a shit about the library.  Nobody wants to fund that thing.  No, what they care about is the Chief.

By the late 1990s, I’d had quite enough of this nonsense, so I chimed in on the anti-Chief campaign begun by Native American activist and former Illinois graduate student Charlene Teters and led, among the faculty, by Steve Kaufman of the liberally-biased Department of Cell and Structural Biology.  When Steve asked for supporting letters, to be sent both to trustees and to the accreditors of the Middle States Association (we wanted them to consider the impact of the Chief in their assessment of the university, and they agreed), I wrote back and said, among other things,

the emotions and arguments of the Chief’s ardent local supporters have close analogies in minstrelsy, which was vigorously defended, 100-150 years ago, as a vehicle for and tribute to authentic African American humor.  (Today, these defenses of minstrelsy are either merely laughable or utterly unthinkable, and no sensible person would seek to revive them.) Similarly, the Chief’s supporters insist on the “dignity” of this figure, and the “tradition” that underwrites his continued appearance.  Yet no American university that wanted to think of itself, as Illinois rightly does, as a “world-class institution” would offer up a minstrel show at its athletic performances, regardless of how passionately attached to such shows anyone had become.  Imagine, if you will, the further spectacle of alumni and trustees and state representatives testifying to their deep love of these humorous characters whose noble culture is enshrined in the revered tradition of the minstrel show.  Such a spectacle would properly be seen, in 1999, not so much as a slur against African Americans as a shameful acknowledgment that the university offering the spectacle – and the people cheering it on – had no idea whatsoever that the racial discourse of 1900 was no longer appropriate to the year 2000.

Well, you get the drift.  When people talk about liberal college faculty being out of step with the rest of the nation, think of this: in places like Champaign-Urbana, the college faculty are the only mass of liberals to be found for miles and miles, from Chicago to St. Louis.  The contrast with the immediately surrounding environs is stark and undeniable – and it is both reflected and heightened by clashes like those over the Chief.

I saw the Chief in action precisely once.  I attended a number of football and basketball games during my time at Illinois, but for one reason and another I did not see the halftime show until 1997.  It was during a basketball game against Minnesota, and I was sitting with then pre-adolescent Nick and one of his friends, when suddenly a bunch of white folks in bright orange sweaters and T-shirts ran onto the court and took up positions on the perimeter, ringing the court in orange.  As they clapped and smiled and bounced, on came the Chief himself.  It was a profoundly cringe-inducing experience.  The Chief’s supporters insist that his routine is “loosely patterned after Native American fancy dance”; now, I know even less about Native dance than I know about smooth jazz, but I am not aware of any indigenous dance forms that involve lots of splits and jumping and touching your toes in mid-air.  I turned to Nick and said, “never mind the debate about whether the Chief is racist– this stuff should be banned for sheer cheesiness alone.” But I said it sotto voce.

For as I watched and cringed and cringed some more, I noticed that sure enough, people around me were cheering and tearing up.  And I began to think, this is as much a cultural divide as a political one, a divide between those with a liberal cringe reflex and those without.  Surely, for my fellow Illinois fans, my visceral reaction to the Chief was just the mirror image of their visceral reaction to the Chief – except that mine was defined by what they would see as an elitist, nose-pinching, PC rectitude that symbolizes everything wrong with liberal college professors.  I don’t have any problem with the name “Illini,” actually—or, for that matter, with the name “Illinois.” But the Chief and his halftime dance are another order of thing altogether.  Please, I thought, let this hopping-and-skipping minstrel show end, and let’s get back to basketball.  I didn’t come here to meditate on town and gown – or on what we’d now call blue and red America.  I just came here to watch Illinois defeat the culturally innocuous, inoffensively-named Golden Rodents Of Some Kind.

Oops!  Sorry about that, Minnesota fans.  Really, your little gophers are OK with me.  But now, back to business:  go Illini, crush the culturally innocuous, inoffensively-named Louisville Cardinals.  And once again, kudos for leaving the Chief in Champaign, where he will not distract attention from a fine, fine basketball team.

Next week’s topic: the University of North Dakota hockey team and their fabulous new rink!

Posted by Michael on 03/31 at 01:40 PM
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