02.16.07

Goodbye, Chief.

Posted in Random thoughts, University life at 10:16 am by ducky

Today, my alma mater, the University of Illinois, announced that Chief Illiniwek would no longer perform at athletic events.

The Chief’s performances had been hugely divisive, with one side contending that the Chief was offensive to Native Americans and the other insisting that his portrayal demonstrated respect for Native Americans. Both sides were correct, which made it so very difficult.

The Chief was not a mascot. He didn’t stand on the sidelines and lead cheers, he didn’t clown around, he didn’t mug for the cameras, or throw t-shirts into the audience. He came out at halftime, danced, and left. He comported himself with dignity and gravity at all times. The dance was physically very challenging. The students respected and honored the Chief. It was very respectful, compared to what it could have been.

On the other hand, the Chief was not authentic. The dance, while containing some elements of Native dances, was not totally authentic. In particular, the last thing the Chief did before leaving the field was mid-air splits — jumping up, spreading his legs up and out in a V, and touching his toes. The costume was Lakota, not Illiniwek. (The Illinois Natives were pretty efficiently disposed of, so there aren’t a lot of records of what they wore or how they danced.) Furthermore, it is a strange borrowing to put Native culture into this context.

What pushed me over to the anti-Chief side was to think about how I would feel on seeing a bad adaptation of important Western culture out of context. Imagine that you’re at a soccer game in Japan, and at halftime, they announce that it’s time for The Pope. Imagine the crowd going wild as a guy in Greek Orthodox regalia solemnly runs out onto the field, and does something sort of like an Irish jig, ending with mid-air splits. Even as a non-Catholic, that would make me highly uncomfortable and perhaps a bit angry. If I were Catholic, I’d be furious.

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