In a somewhat surprising (and maybe confusing) development, the NCAA announced today that it would ban the use of “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” at NCAA championships. (Apparently, the NCAA does not have the authority to impose regulations on regular season play.) This is a significant victory for anti-Indian mascot activists, who for years have been challenging the use of often denigrating Indian imagery by sports teams. Affected by the new guidelines are several different “Braves”, even more “Indians”, and one each of the “Chippewas”, “Seminoles”, “Utes”, “Redmen”, “Illini”, “Choctaws”, “Fighting Sioux”, and the “Savages”.
It’s easy to see why many American Indians are offended by the use of clear ethnic slurs like “Redmen”, “Savages”, and “Redskins” to describe a sports team. It also might be easy to imagine why some groups might be offended by the appropriation of their names to describe teams that they are in no way affiliated with. But these are not really the issues around which debate has focused — or, rather, they are just the shallowest and easiest-to-grasp points of what is a much deeper debate, one that focuses largely on representationand the question of who history and tradition belongs to.
Defenders of Indian team names and mascots obviously resist the charge of racism, but they do so in a way that, at first, seems surprising. They do not, for instance, question the significance of a team mascot in the face of systematic racism with much more far-reaching impacts — like forced sterilization of Indian women in the very recent past. One could imagine such a claim — “how much damage is this really doing?” they could ask — but don’t (at least not usually). In fact, they cling tenaciously to their mascots — as fiercely as any Indian nation ever clung to their own traditions and autonomy. Consoder, for example, this statement from the Honor the Chief group at the University of Illinois:
For 78 years, the Chief has been the symbol of the spirit of a great university and of our intercollegiate athletic teams, and as such is loved by the people of Illinois. The University considers the symbol to be dignified and has treated it with respect. His ceremonial dance is performed with grace and beauty.
Chief Illiniwek embodies the attributes valued by alumni, students, and friends of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The tradition of the Chief is a link to our great past, a tangible symbol of an intangible spirit, filled with qualities to which a person of any background can aspire: goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage, and dignity.
The Chief Illiniwek tradition can be transformed into an educational asset, to both the University and to the Native American community. Elevating the symbol of Chief Illiniwek provides an opportunity for the University to promote the attributes that have come to be identified with this tradition. Together, we can utilize our considerable strengths and resources to celebrate diversity—our growth as a human race—and create a true consensus for the future.
Put that way, it seems almost cruel to strip the University Illini of their tradition and their code of “goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage, and dignity”. Which is to say, the defenders of Chief Illiniwek have defined him as a symbol of a “lifeway” every bit as valuable — and valid — as that of the actual Illini themselves. What is at stake here is no longer a mascot, but a culture, of which Chief Illiniwek is only the most visible symbol.
While this positioning is not likely to impress most Indian activists — any more than arguments about the Confederate flag as a symbol of the pride and honor on Southern culture is likely to impress civil rights activists — it is the corrollary that really bothers them. Because the argument from tradition is often paired with an argument that essentially says that Indians should be honored by being chosen to represent such high ideals. What’s more, that they should be proud to be represented by such a fine and authentic mascot. So, for instance, another U of IL-based site, the Chief Illiniwek Educational Foundation (Ch.I.E.F.), puts forth as its mission:
…to utilize the presence of Chief Illiniwek to promote greater education and awareness of American Indian people, culture , tradition, and history to the students, alumni, and friends of the University of Illinois.
The Ch.I.E.F. site incudes an in-depth history of Chief Illiniwek, his regalia and dance, noting the authenticity of the representation (although it appears that, since his inception in 1926, Illiniwek has owed more to the Lakota than to more local Illinois tribal traditions).
As Philip Deloria has noted, the appropriation and enactment of Indian identities in “play” has a long history in the United States — essentially since there was a United States — and it is premised on the idea that Indian tradition and history could be claimed as non-Indian tradition and history.
Indianness offered a deep, authentic, aboriginal Americanness….To play Indian has been to connect with a real Self, both collective and individual… (Playing Indian, 1998, Yale University Press).
This “authentic Americanness”, though, is premised on the evacuation of real Indians, on their supplantation — in “playing Indian”, the new “authentic American” replaces the old one — so it makes sense that mascot defenders often claim that they are preserving Indian heritage when Indians themselves cannot or will not, as in this comment (scroll to 4th comment) left on a U of IL alumni discussion board:
Consider the irony that the tribes themselves were unable to perpetuate the traditional dance the Chief does at halftime; it took a bunch of “immature frat boys” to do so. Now, there will be NO living record of this element of Illinoisian culture….
Playing Indian legitimizes the displacement of aboriginal Americans by suggesting that the new Americans are the rightful inheritors of Indian tradition. At stake in the debate over Indian mascots, then, is not just school tradition, but the very right of the school, as an American institution, to exist in the first place. For if appropriating a mere image like that of Chief Illiniwek is wrong, then how much more wrong must be the appropriation of an entire continent from its “rightful” occumpants?