Chief Illiniwek and Tradition

A high school basketball game between two rivals in Central Illinois was going to highlight the return of the very racist Chief Illiniwek.* The Chief, an epically offensive mascot that the University of Illinois put out of its misery after appeals by students, Native American groups, and finally the NAACP forced its greedy little hands, is still a popular favorite among white sports lovers in my own Illinois who claim it is a part of their tradition and should be honored as such. It’s a racist tradition they are still proud of.

Still. In 2015.



Ever ask a Southerner why they sometimes carry the Confederate Battle Flag as a sign of pride? Usually they answer like Accidentally Racist Brad Paisley – it’s a sign of respecting their tradition. And this is where you cue Fiddler on the Roof. Tradition is a good thing, right? We should all honor our forbearers and ancestors. But what happens when the tradition being honored isn’t really yours in the first place? Or the tradition that you’re honoring has more to do with ending the traditions and cultures of countless people? In light of the awfully racist University of Illinois’s Native Mascot “Chief Illini” being resurrected at local high schools in central Illinois and all of the white people defending this, let’s talk about traditions.

Before we go any further, we should clarify that there is no good analogy in this scenario. When sports teams take the names and images of First Nations – like the Tomohawk Chop or Chief Illiniwek – it’s not just offensive or politically incorrect. It’s not even just oppressive. It is an act of genocide. So there is no good comparison to be made in the US. Maybe with Israel and Palestine, but even there it’s not quite the same. So the comparisons made here should be read with that context, I think, and not be made into memes.)

My inheritance legacy is a mixture of Puerto Rican, Irish and other European roots (including English and Dutch), many of which have been in the US dating back to the Revolutionary War. So I’m thinking of translating, loosely, what kind of “honor” these sports fans give to Native Americans into how I’d see them as a Puerto Rican, as an Irish lad, as a poor white guy.

When I think about the R*dsk*ns and the Chiefs and the Fighting Illini (which, by the way, the Illini nation was peace-loving and not a warrior tribe), although I cannot personally relate and any similarities fall short, I think of how I felt hearing white people referring to my grandmother as a “sp*c.” I can only begin to imagine the caricatures, the ridiculous movements that Anglos would practice. Dressing up in brown-face, yelling “WAAYYYYYPA!” as a battle cry. Acting drunk and eating tacos (which is not a Puerto Rican cuisine in the least) because that’s how they imagine Puerto Ricans acting. The mascot would be a toad (instead of the traditional island frog coquí) or a dancing gang member out of West Side Story. The anthem would be “Everything is free in America.” What if the opposing teams had signs of Teddy Roosevelt taking the hills of San Juan? I mean, yay USA “freeing” brown people from Europeans by conquest and giving the land to the much more civil USA. “Freedom.”

Now, would this be somebody’s legacy? Of course it would. It would be the legacy of racist people. It would be the tradition of coopting, mockery, misrepresentation, oppression and money-making. This is what racism is! Their memory is being honored here because it’s obviously not Boriquas. In fact, it is a memory – but it’s a painful one that still stings.

I’m wondering what it would be for the English to similarly “honor” the Irish. What if their soccer teams to have names like the Starving Irish to honor the memory of the great potato famine? Their mascots can be the leprechaun from Lucky Charms or the slasher flicks1. Or it could be drunken men stooping around and saying nonsense. It could be

People will bring up the Fighting Irish at this point. And while it is a caricature, Notre Dame is an Irish institution deciding to poke fun at their own selves and point to an Irish legacy in such a way. There is a tremendous distinction between a people deciding to poke light fun at themselves and finding humor in their collective memory and one where the murderers, those who have been sending their children off to war or starving them or denying them of decent housing and life take those caricatures. One is finding meaning in suffering – the other is denying meaning through suffering.

Another legacy I share is that of poor white family. So I imagine if rich people were to have horse jockey teams called The Rednecks or White Trash. That would be different than poor white people declaring their affinity for those titles (one I don’t share). In fact, poor white people’s pride for the names were originally an act of defiance against the disdain of Yankees and upper middle class folks. Again we must ask, whose legacy is served by these icons? Likely, the people who have kept poor white people in their “place”.

Some traditions need to be thrown away and tossed in the fire. Especially when they’re murderous.

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*The halftime show – which was set between two high school teams whose names and logos are also anti-Native American mascotry, The Tuscola Warriors and the Sullivan R*dsk*ns – has been canceled. The Tuscola school district did not cancel out of any sense of human decency but out of safety concerns. Which is one of the more racist things I’ve heard. Teach them early, right?

3 thoughts on “Chief Illiniwek and Tradition

  1. Pingback: Racial Mascotry and the Space for “Enlightening Discussions” | Leftcheek deuce

  2. >So I imagine if rich people were to have horse jockey teams called The Rednecks or White Trash.

    Not the same thing. Those that complain about the Chief, and those whp even have issues with the word Illini, have ingrained in their brains that the Chief was born out of malice. It wasn’t. Naming a group Rednecks or White Trash is. It’s to actually made to make fun of and mock. It’s pointing to a particular demographic, of a particular economic bracket, and saying, “Look at you white people – poor, stupid and beer guzzling losers!’ If the Chief was holding a sack that said “casino $$$” while carrying a beer can when dancing then I can see where it would be deemed a disgrace. But that was never the reality of the portrayal.

    And the word name Fighting Illini was actually meant to broadcast a “fighting” spirit on the athletic field of competition – not to broadcast that the Illini were savages or anything of that sort.

    • GRA,

      Intentions aren’t the focus here. It doesn’t matter if the name was *born* of malice. It wasn’t born of appreciation or respect. To become respectful, it would need to listen to those it appropriates from. It became, however, disrespectful when the tribes asked for the names and mascotry to be removed but the schools and alumni decided their own sports tradition was more important than that of the tribes’ own self-identification.

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