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Tim Giago: 'Chief Illiniwek' does his last dance
Monday, February 19, 2007
Filed Under: Opinion

The news is out that the University of Illinois will drop its Chief Illiniwek mascot. It just goes to show that not all 'traditions' are honorable.

It all began in 1926 when an Illinois student named Lester Leutwiler put on a homemade Indian costume and pranced around the football field at halftime. It will come to an end on Wednesday when the current mascot, Dan Maloney, will do the splits and other non-Indian dance steps for the last time.

This time-honored tradition faced its first objection when a young lady of Spokane Indian heritage, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, named Charlene Teters, stood alone and fearful at a football game in Champaign holding a small sign that read, 'We are human beings and not mascots.'

Many of the fans and alumni of the 'Fighting Illini' were at first puzzled and then angered at the audacity of this young Indian lady. Some spat on her as they walked past and others flipped burning cigarettes at her. But she tearfully stood her ground because she had grown increasingly sick and tired of having her people insulted every Saturday for the sake of a football game.

To stand alone in the face of such fury and anger from a supposed educated segment of America's white society took courage and determination, but the constant insults and abuse soon caused Ms. Teters to waver. Her fear was mostly for that of her children and not herself. But tell me this; why should any person fear for their very lives for protesting the use of Indians as mascots for America's fun and games?

After observing a particular crude presentation at the halftime of a Washington Redskins football game in 1982 I wrote a column questioning the use of human beings as mascots in a fashion that demeaned them. The incident involved a group of fans painting a pig red, placing a feathered bonnet on its head and then chasing it around the fifty-yard line as halftime entertainment. The first thing that struck me was what if these fans had painted a pig black and placed an Afro-wig on its head and did this stunt at halftime? Even 25 years ago this would have gone over about as well as a fart in church.

I was stunned by the hate mail I received for this column. I was asked to be on a national radio call-in show to talk about the use of Indians as mascots. Once again, the hate directed at me spewed from the radio. Mind you, I am Native American, Oglala Lakota, born and raised on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. Some of the callers suggested that, 'If I didn't like it, go back to wherever in the hell I came from.'

One day I got a call from Charlene Teters. She told me she was hurt and frightened by the attacks upon her for standing up against the use of Chief Illiniwek as her school's mascot. She said she was going to quit school and go home. I said, 'That is your choice Char, but if you quit, they win.' Well, she didn't quit but instead continued her protests even beyond the day she graduated. Soon hundreds of Native Americans showed up on Homecoming Day at the University of Illinois to join Ms. Teters in her protest.

I joined the protest one year as a newspaper reporter. I walked near the protestors taking pictures as they marched. I was once again overwhelmed by the degree of hatred aimed at these protestors. Profanity such as 'F- you squaws' or 'Get the hell out of here you drunken Indians,' rained down on the protestors on their march to the stadium. My God, what a proud tradition! How can a people exude such hatred for real Indians while honoring a phony chief?

Howard Wakeland, president of the Honor the Chief Society said after the decision to remove Illiniwek as the school's mascot that it was like putting the mascot in a museum. 'Put him in a cage and walk by and say that's our symbol. That seriously kills the heart of the chief.' There will always be those who just don't get it.

In the minds of most Native Americans it is high time Illiniwek was placed in a museum. I hope the traditional Sioux regalia the University purchased from Chief Fools Crow under false pretenses are returned before their mascot is put on display. Fools Crow believed the University purchased the outfit for historical and educational purposes. When I showed him a photo of how the costume was actually used he was furious. Before his death several years ago he asked, 'How can I get them back?' The Oglala Sioux Tribe is now demanding their return thanks to Eileen Janis, the former vice president of the tribe.

The University of Illinois joined Stanford, Marquette, Dartmouth and other colleges and universities that saw their traditional mascots as racist and did away with them. There are still handful Indian tribes that have sold out their heritage and allow colleges to use their images as mascots. And there is still a professional football team that uses the color of a people’s skin for its mascot.

I honor Charlene Teters for her courage and determination. She has fought for and helped bring about many changes at colleges like Stanford, Marquette, Dartmouth and more that have dropped their Indian mascots and declared them as racist. I will consider America grown up when it finally determines that to name a professional football team 'Redskins' after the color of a people's skin is one of the last bastions of racial prejudice in this country

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990-1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, "Children Left Behind."

More Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Greed is the new God in Indian Country (2/12)
Giago discusses 'dark legacy' of boarding schools (2/5)
Tim Giago: Writing helped heal wounds of abuse (1/29)
Tim Giago: How many others will die over Iraq? (1/22)
Tim Giago: Apache journalist opens doors in media (1/15)
Tim Giago: Newspaper fills gap in South Dakota (1/8)
Tim Giago: Recognize an Indian hero in the new year (1/2)
Tim Giago: Christmas and Lakota traditions (12/25)
Tim Giago: Sen. Johnson never wanted the spotlight (12/18)
Tim Giago: The 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee (12/11)
Tim Giago: R-word just as insulting as the N-word (12/4)
Tim Giago: Mainstream media lacking in accuracy (11/27)
Tim Giago: Thanksgiving - A holiday of the imagination (11/22)
Tim Giago: State stifling growth on reservations (11/20)
Tim Giago: Taking stock of Election Day 2006 (11/13)
Tim Giago: Few roles for Indians in Hollywood (11/6)
Tim Giago: Freedom of the press has a chance (10/31)
Tim Giago: Important election day for South Dakota (10/24)
Tim Giago: White media ignores Indian contributions (10/17)
Tim Giago: Termination a dirty word in Indian Country (10/10)
Giago: Domestic violence from a male perspective (10/3)
Tim Giago: Culturecide started with innocent children (09/19)
Tim Giago: Indian people mark 500 years of terrorism (9/11)
Tim Giago: Lawsuit challenges church on abuse (9/6)
Tim Giago: Day of reckoning for Oglala Sioux Tribe (8/29)
Tim Giago: Tribes giving up their sovereignty (08/08)
Giago retires as editor and publisher of magazine (8/4)
Tim Giago: States looking for ways to take from tribes (8/1)
Tim Giago: Religion invaded Native America (7/25)
Tim Giago: Daily screw ups in tribal governance (7/18)
Tim Giago: Happy Birthday to Van Cliburn and me (7/11)
Tim Giago: South Dakota tilting further to the right (7/3)
Tim Giago: Americans still the invaders in Iraq (6/27)
Tim Giago: Tribal colleges in Bill Gates' backyard (6/21)
Tim Giago: Gaming brings new wealth, new problems (6/13)
Tim Giago: 'Oz' author called for genocide of the Lakota (6/6)
Tim Giago: Too much uncertainty in gaming (5/30)
Tim Giago: Deny gaming to newly recognized tribes (5/23)
Tim Giago: Congratulations to the class of '06 (5/16)
Tim Giago: Rich tribes should help poorer tribes (5/9)
Tim Giago: Fighting substance abuse at Pine Ridge (5/2)
Tim Giago: Censorship in the mainstream media (4/25)
Tim Giago: Brainwashing on Pine Ridge Reservation (4/18)
Tim Giago: The growing pains of tribal sovereignty (4/11)
Tim Giago: Indians most affected by immigration (4/4)
Tim Giago: Little attention for Native American Day (3/28)
Giago: Oglala Sioux president on state abortion law (3/21)
Tim Giago: The road to true tribal sovereignty (3/14)
Tim Giago: The basketball miracle of 1936 (3/7)
Giago: Real problem in South Dakota is race relations (2/21)
Tim Giago: Yes, Virginia, Indians do pay taxes (2/14)
Tim Giago: Gas-guzzlers, Indian cars and the Big Three (2/7)
Tim Giago: Lions, Tiger, Bears and Indian mascots (1/31)
Tim Giago: Christians and Muslims still at war (1/24)
Tim Giago: Bush started Iraqi war over 'dark lie' (1/17)
Tim Giago: Fire Thunder out of limbo after 66 days (1/10)
Tim Giago: The Olympics of Indian basketball (12/20)
Tim Giago: BIA schools turned abused into abusers (12/13)
Tim Giago: Fire Thunder shakes up establishment (12/6)
Tim Giago: Della Warrior steps down from IAIA (11/29)
Tim Giago: Deloria gave Indian people a voice (11/22)
Tim Giago: Indians never forced religion on others (11/15)
Tim Giago: Exposing false medicine men (11/8)
Tim Giago: Government ignores Indian health problems (11/1)
Tim Giago: Indian newspapers revise history (10/25)
Tim Giago: Two friends make journey to spirit world (10/18)
Tim Giago: Politicians need to know Indian law (10/11)
Tim Giago: Doors opening to Indians in South Dakota (10/4)
Tim Giago: 'Indian' myths and misconceptions (9/27)
Tim Giago: Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina (9/20)
Tim Giago: NCAA loses its spine on mascot policy (9/13)
Tim Giago: The Indian 'scandal sheet' phenomenon (08/30)
Tim Giago: Indians became refugees in own land (8/23)
Tim Giago: Censor tribes for supporting mascots (8/17)
Tim Giago: New addiction takes over in Indian Country (08/02)
Tim Giago: Tribes trade sovereignty for dollars (7/26)
Giago: Seminole Tribe wrong on Indian mascots (7/19)
Giago: Underground Railroad to escape boarding school (7/12)
Giago: Skeletons hidden in Rapid City's closet (07/07)
Tim Giago: Air Force base not a blessing to Lakotas (6/30)
Tim Giago: Tribes to claim downsized military bases (06/07)
Tim Giago: First revolutionary was a Native man (5/31)
Tim Giago: Many 'wannabe' tribes seek recognition (05/17)
Tim Giago: South Dakota press censors Indian writers (05/10)
Tim Giago: White lawyers growing fat off tribes (04/26)
Tim Giago: Gay marriage debate killed Democrats (4/19)
Tim Giago: It's time for wealthy tribes to think Indian (04/05)
Tim Giago: Wealthy tribes don't need federal funds (03/31)
Tim Giago: Gaming leads to addiction, crime (03/22)
Tim Giago: Discrimination in the media and advertising (03/08)
Tim Giago: Black Hills land theft a dishonest deal (03/01)
Tim Giago: Committing slow suicide with foods (02/15)
Tim Giago: Bush probably still against Indian gaming (01/25)
Tim Giago: Calvary re-enactors should know better (01/18)
Tim Giago: Racism continues in South Dakota (11/30)
Tim Giago: Should we listen to Osama bin Laden? (11/23)
Tim Giago: GOP moral values will hurt Indian Country (11/09)
Tim Giago: Indian reformists stamped out tribes (11/02)
Tim Giago: I'm not a racist and I haven't seen NMAI yet (09/29)
Tim Giago: Eastern tribes are African-American (09/15)
Tim Giago: Indians have cause to fear Republicans (07/21)
Tim Giago: Casinos create culture of 'us' and 'them' (06/30)
Tim Giago: Boarding schools cause of many ills (06/14)
Tim Giago: 'Real' Indians don't fight over money (04/05)
Tim Giago now plans to run for Senate as independent (03/31)
Tim Giago: Indians pay no taxes, and other myths (01/26)
Giago: Indian gaming erodes tribal sovereignty (01/07)
Giago: Gays were highly respected by Sioux Nation (09/22)
Tim Giago: I'm a fully recovered Catholic (09/11)
Giago: State should refund tax money first (08/06)
Giago: Oprah show changed minds on Indian mascots (07/31)

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