MASCOT: Illiniwek becomes a controversy in Oregon, too
Illiniwek becomes a controversy in Oregon, too
George Beres 12/13/2005
"Media image is especially crucial because it is that image that looms
large as non-Indians decide the fate of Indian people. If non-Indian
decision-makers continue to view native people as savage survivors or happy
hunters on the way to extinction, the policy is different than it would be
if decision-makers saw beyond the stereotype." - Rennard Strickland,
retired dean of Law, University of Oregon, and a Native American.
Much was at stake in what Dean Rennard Strickland refers to as "media
image" in the context of sports when the Oregon Ducks played a college
basketball game against a highly ranked Illinois team in Portland on Dec.
For Native Americans and their supporters on the UO campus, media image of
the game is but a metaphor for a minority's ongoing pursuit of ethnic
justice through the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (NCAA).
The game was a return match for that which Illinois won in Chicago last
December. Its implications go beyond the final score, relating to an
expanding national controversy over team nicknames and mascots of Native
American origins. The issue spread to the University of Oregon in 2002,
when 240 students and 25 Law professors brought a resolution in behalf of
Native Americans to President David Frohnmayer. He gave them verbal
assurances he would not allow Oregon teams to schedule opponents with
ethnic nicknames objected to by Native Americans.
Frohnmayer was to do this by exploring the issue as a member of a NCAA
panel reviewing Native American imagery. The games with Illinois were
As a native of Illinois, I was captivated by halftime performances of Chief
Illiniwek, the Illini symbol in war bonnet who gyrated to the beat of
drums. It was part of the color of the event, and had no other
implications-- or so I thought. That changed when the start of NCAA game
telecasts in the 1950s made Native Americans nationwide aware of Chief
Illiniwek. It helped feed their developing opposition to mascots that
demeaned them, even if unintentionally.
Now, half-a-century later, computerized data informs us the Illini name is
among 179 college team "tokens" in the context of the American Indian. Most
of the others (103) use the name, Indians. Illinois ranked third nationally
in number of teams having Native American designations.
The issue was reviewed at highest levels within the University of Illinois
after it heard concerns of the N. Central Association of Colleges & Schools
in 1999. Teams of Bradley University of Peoria, near my Illinois hometown,
have been known as the Braves. The NCAA recently denied the university's
appeal to retain the name.
Among universities that have moved away from Indian names are Stanford,
Marquette, Miami of Ohio, Colgate, St. John's, Syracuse, St. Bonaventure,
Oklahoma City and Seattle. Although the NCAA has no authority over them,
many high schools have dropped Indian names.
Student objections have strong support among the Oregon faculty. Journalism
Prof. Debra Merskin is an authority on race, gender and media. She believes
the university's inconsistency on the issue contradicts its stated plan to
recognize and act upon important issues of diversity.
There is historical context. The Illinois Indian nation was made up of the
Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankeshaw and Wea tribes that moved to Oklahoma. As a
collective known as Illiniwek, the Oklahoma tribes issued a resolution in
2000, asking the University of Illinois to stop using the chief as mascot.
As one member said, because the chief is the highest religious and
political position in a tribe, the way he performs at Illinois games is
equivalent to having a Catholic Cardinal in his robes do a halftime dance
at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame had a related religious incident in football with a college band
familiar to Oregon fans. At a game in South Bend, the Stanford band had
some of its members parade in nun's robes. Complaints came, and the band
apologized, and was punished by its university.
I remember at one time feeling there was nothing wrong with my high
school's use of the Chink as mascot in Pekin, Ill. Not knowing its negative
meaning, I saw it as a symbol of honor. But I fully understood
sensitivities of Chinese by the time the name was changed to Dragons in
1981. I leaned of the broader meaning of Chink when I was with the Army in
Korea, facing Chinese armies across the demilitarized zone. It didn't take
long for the derogatory nature of the name to become obvious.
Last February, a student group at the UI bought a full-page ad in the
Oregon school newspaper, asking Oregon not to object to Chief Illiniwek.
That feeling is sincere. It also is mistaken, failing to understand deeper
meanings of some borrowed symbols.
It would help to have better understanding of foreign and Native American
words and culture. More important is the way involved ethnic groups feel.
Because its nickname and mascot show insensitivity to Native Americans,
Illinois has no choice.
It must do what my high school did with honor: change its symbol. It won't
unless schools such as Oregon make it clear that Illinois is a welcome
opponent, but its nickname is unacceptable in this state.
George Beres of Eugene was sports information director at Northwestern
University, which plays Illinois every year, before moving to the same
position at the University of Oregon.