Opinion: Keep 'Chief Illiniwek' on the sidelines

"You could be forgiven for never having heard of Chief Illiniwek. He may not be making a splash on either coast, but the controversy around him has captured the attention of many in the middle. Much of Illinois was educated at its local state college where, for the last 81 graduating classes, its Native American mascot Chief Illiniwek has supposedly honored native heritage in the state.

That streak, however, came to a rightful end when the University of Illinois retired the figure in February. Chief Illiniwek, portrayed by a student in buckskin clothes and face paint, is a racist symbol of older, less understanding times. At least seven Native American groups, local and national, have lobbied to eliminate him. The documentary “In Whose Honor?” traces one activist’s fight against Illinois’ “degrading depictions” of her fellow Native Americans.

Yet traditionalists cling tight to their retired mascot. To them, Chief Illiniwek is an honorable part of the state’s identity. But there are certainly more productive ways to honor natives than a cheap caricature that rolls every Native American stereotype into one.

With his feathers and war paint, the chief’s minstrel show encourages the childish perception of Native Americans as uncivilized, reducing them to a ridiculous archetype. His performance also featured a “traditional” dance that was actually exaggerated for the crowd’s benefit. When Native American ways are embellished or altered to entertain the masses, the descriptor “Jim Crow” leaps to mind sooner than “honor.”"

Get the Story:
Nathaniel S. Rakich: RIP Chief Illiniwek (The Harvard Crimson 11/13)

Relevant Links:
Retire the Chief - http://www.retirethechief.org

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