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Hail to the...

posted March 2007

People who live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois will have to forgive me while I get the rest of the world up to speed on the momentous happenings around here. This site being part of the world wide web, it happens that people sometimes log on from places like Spain and Australia where they might see things in a little different light than the locals.  They might not even (imagine!) have heard about the issue that grips us all:

In late February, it was announced that Chief Illiniwek, the native-American based symbol of the University of Illinois, whose face adorns many T-shirts and much Illini gear, and who takes corporeal form to dance at halftime during basketball games, was going to be retired.

You haven't heard about this? Then clearly you don't live around here. The Daily Illini carried a headline announcing the Chief's demise which was about the same size as that famous Times headline the day the U.S. got involved in World War II--you know: "WAR!" It said "ONE MORE DANCE!"

For some time, the matter of the Chief has caused much controversy, although, in this town, the majority opinion is that the chief is a symbol of all that is good about the university, that it honors native Americans, and that it is a tradition which is too deeply beautiful to put into words.

Outside the environs of Illinois, people do not often see it this way. Native American groups have decried the chief as a racist symbol and have fought for its removal. The National Collegiate Athletic Association a few years ago tried to force the university to remove the symbol and the dancing chief by disallowing colleges which use native American symbolism from participation in post-season playoff games. The university fought a long battle on that score, and lost. This was about a year ago. Now, rather suddenly, considering the entrenched position of political opinion around here, the Chief has been retired by university fiat, leaving a lot of people very upset.

Are you with me so far? Good. By the way, if you are reading from someplace outside of Illinois, just drop me a line (michael@pianonoise.com) and let me know what you think about all this. I know most of you are just here because you Googled one of my MP3s or some information about a composer and aren't interested in reading long opinion pieces about things happening far away. But if you find yourself hanging on for the ride, I'm curious why.

Let me elaborate on the situation here for outsiders. If you live in Champaign-Urbana, people will often ask you if you "saw the game last night." That game is always the college men's basketball game. It doesn't matter if the Superbowl or game seven of the World Series took place at the same time (unless the Cardinals were playing)--THE GAME always refers to college basketball. This is because, in this town of about 100,000 (actually two towns which have grown together) there are no professional teams, and the university, which is main reason this town is as populous as it is, provides most of the sporting entertainment. The football team has a tradition of losing all the time, but the basketball team has recently been to the national championship game. Who do you think most folks are going to root for?

When we first arrived here a couple of years ago, Kristen and I were struck by how homogenous this place is by comparison with east coast big city life. At least half, if not the majority, of people here seem to have spent their whole lives, or a large portion of it, right here, or within 100 miles. When asked for directions to something, people were likely to say "It's right next to the [naming some other place we didn't know how to get to]" or "It's where the so-an-so used to be" than providing a street name or a direction. There's nothing wrong with being a close-knit community. And the size of the university and its prestige make the town more cosmopolitan than you might expect from a largely rural part of a mid-American state, but it does illustrate a mindset that I want to come back to in order to suggest to the people of our cities why the people in the rest of the country do not react to this news in the same way that they do.

Now that I've explained the situation to people from elsewhere, I want to address the people of Illinois. Although not everyone in town is happy with the Chief, practically everything I've read about him in the papers or heard on the radio has been positive. In other parts of the country people are not nearly so happy with the Chief and what they think he stands for. One columnist recently called it "blatant racism". Obviously there is a real disconnect here. Now this issue is so emotionally charged that, even after waiting a couple of weeks to let people cool off, even the mere suggestion that the Chief might be less than holy is really sticking one's neck out. But I think it is something that needs to be done. I'm not yelling, I'm not accusing people of hate, and you'll notice this column is long enough that it took some thinking before I hit the "send" button. There hasn't been too much civil discourse on the subject lately but I'm going to try. Now At the risk of becoming less popular than Hitler, I want to explain why the Chief is viewed as a backward, bigoted, and cruel symbol by some people who often do not get represented in our media or in our thinking.

I'm doing this in the belief that there are all kinds of people who support the Chief. Some of them are very passionate about their tradition and their way of life but don't realize that it could be doing a lot of psychological harm to other people. They are so used to viewing the issue from one side that it would never even occur to them to ask Native Americans whether they think they are being honored by this tradition or not. They keep telling us that the Chief is an honor to Native Americans, even though all the Native American groups I've heard of around here do not consider him an honor at all. Every once in a while a Native American group pops up calling for the Chief's retirement (3 such groups on campus appear to have done that, but I didn't find that out until I did some research) but since the Native American population is about 60 students in a field of 30,000, people easily dismiss them as malcontents. They are, after all, a very small minority. Never mind that Americans had a major hand in making it that way.

It is to those people that I want to suggest the following experiment in empathy:

Suppose we got invaded by another people. Let's make them Arabs, since we're afraid of them anyway. Suppose these Arabs took over our country, and all but wiped us out. A lot of us got killed by their guns and bombs, and many more by diseases while they were relocating us into concentration camps. The real story of this might be complicated: some of us tried to get along with some of them, a few suggested compromises, it looked like for a while that we were going to be treated fairly, but then a new Mullah came to power and changed policy, we were shuffled from one place to another, more people died, some of us decided to kill as many of them as possible, which got their people angrier at us, including some of the ones who originally sought peace between our peoples, some of us adapted to their ways, and most held out for our own sacred traditions for as long as possible while an inexorable wave of them swept over our land. We prayed to our God, but he didn't seem to be listening. Now there are only a few of us left to tell the story.

About a hundred years later some of them decide to make their sporting events more exotic by featuring one of us dancing at halftime. We've been in their culture all along: for a while we were in movies, speaking broken Arabic,  untrustworthy, raining terror and death on their outposts with our inferior weaponry, participating in the retelling of one of their greatest cultural myths: how they subdued the country and settled our untamed and savage land. Eventually some of them felt the need to apologize for their ugly stereotype, but others decided to turn us into mascots.

Now suppose it is halftime of some sport you've never heard of, and some Arab guy dressed up to resemble a head of state from our past is dancing at the game. Maybe he's got a Bible in one hand, or a cross. Maybe it's an American flag, or he's wearing a cowboy hat. Whatever symbol you choose, it won't represent all of us. The person doing the dance (is it something like a square dance?) isn't American, nor is the audience. It's just possible that not a single person in the building is of American ancestry, or that well acquainted with real American traditions. Maybe a few are. There is a group of instruments wailing away at something that sounds vaguely like Yankee Doodle or some Stephen Foster song, but not really. It was written by somebody from their culture, and it is being played on instruments that Americans would barely recognize. The crowd is chanting something they think sounds American--It could be a set of "Christian" words that they borrowed from the King James version of the Bible: Theethou, yeyow, verily! Or some garbled version of the Pledge of Allegiance: totheflag! totheflag! totheflag! Yehaa!! 


You shouldn't be. You are supposed to feel honored. If you don't, well, obviously that's your problem. The more you try to tell people that you are bothered by this, the angrier they get. How dare you even think of throwing cold water on their glorious tradition!

The people of our town feel, or at least say (in the majority) that they are honoring our history (whose history?) and are doing nothing demeaning. The problem is that the people who might beg to differ have been effectively silenced. We've heard people from other parts of the country say that this Chief thing is a really bad idea, but few people around here seem to have any idea why other parts of the country might think that. And, reflexively, they look for some simple and ignoble motivation for their critic's stance, as people tend to do in fights like these.

It's just the PC police again, trying to find something to get all bent out of shape about, I've heard. I'm no big fan of all things PC, but I think when you've got genocide in the mix you've got to be careful about telling people they are getting all worked up over nothing. The people of the University of Illinois may have a long tradition that symbolizes their love for their university, but the Chief is also a symbol of a people that got all but wiped off the map by the people who created the symbol. Is there a bit of an empathy disconnect here? Sure, it doesn't offend us, we even think it somehow honors native Americans, but I think it isn't too compassionate to tell another group whether they ought to feel offended or not, or whether they should be honored. Isn't their something weird about a bunch of white people going around saying they are honoring native Americans if the Native Americans themselves don't feel honored? Somehow I don't think an honor is an honor if the honorees don't view it that way!

On Wednesday, February 21, the people around here were not thinking about that. They were mourning for their lost tradition. Some of them have written angry letters to the newspaper, some have called radio shows to complain about the NCAA imposing its sanctomonius decree on a beloved tradition that it doesn't understand, some have broken down in tears. Many have called the school's leadership cowardly for making its decision. It's funny, though. If you knew a decision you were going to make was going to make most of the town hate your guts with a passion reserved for few things in life, wouldn't it take more than a coward? But I know what they mean. We always call our leaders cowards when they don't do what we want. In droves. If they had gone with the majority they would have been courageous. Figure that out.

Still, I don't want to belittle that tradition. I understand traditions can be very powerful, and moving. Symbols can mean many things, including some very good things, to some people. I'm going to discuss that in a minute. But we need to recognize how what seems like such a wonderful institution to us can be very detrimental to somebody else, and I often get the sense that many of the Chief's supporters don't realize that. Or don't want to. I have a deep sympathy with some of you. But I think justice and decent treatment for people who have been marginalized trumps a tradition any day of the week. It has to. I've heard all the rhetoric about brotherhood and diversity in other contexts, but the Chief always gets a free pass.

Dan Maloney, the U of I senior who until recently danced the part of the chief during the halftime shows, has become a local celebrity. He has been interviewed on radio, television, and in the print media. There was a large picture of him, dejected, in the paper.  He has had almost as much coverage as the Native Americans who were asked about the situation.

Just kidding. They didn't ask any. To my knowledge not a single person or group who has reason to feel race humiliation as a result of the chief has been asked to provide a quote for the papers lately. [Note: about three days after I wrote this, the paper did do a story about the 20 year battle that some native Americans have had to be rid of the Chief. It was the first anti-Chief article I had seen in the newspaper]. Although one group which promotes racial awareness on campus (or stirs the pot if you like to think of it that way) got a 30-second bit on the radio a day after the chief danced his last dance. After only 10 minutes of stories about how much the chief will be missed. Am I wrong in thinking the media coverage here is just a wee bit tilted?

I have to bring this up because time after time I have seen pro-chief groups tell us that the Chief is not only not racist, he is an honor to native Americans. This is all coming from non-native Americans, of course (although I have seen a poll that suggested a few years back that 83% of Native Americans weren't bothered by this sort of thing. I've seen another poll suggest just the opposite). In a situation like this, I wouldn't expect everyone to agree, including the Native Americans, some of whom have completely assimilated, have tried to put the bloody history of our conflict behind them, may have little patience for history, or honestly feel that a guy dressed as an "Indian" doing a somewhat traditional dance is really cool. Others feel it belittles their people because it makes out as if Native Americans were only about war.  So far, compassionate people on both sides could suggest we are having an honest disagreement.

The problem is that the debate is not very honest. I've heard at least a hundred times that the Chief is about honoring the history of the region. What history? Have you ever noticed nobody wants to actually discuss any of it? Let's all talk in lofty terms about a glorious past and then conveniently forget any of the actual history. Notice how  the website "Honor-the-chief.org" casually mentions the demise of an entire people, summing up the whole era in a sentence:

"Although the original Illini disappeared from the region long ago, one way that they are remembered through the Chief Illiniwek tradition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign." [I know that sentence is missing a verb, but that's the way it appears on their site.]

They seem to have just "disappeared" did they? Like the way my socks don't all make it out of the dryer? But it gets worse. The Chief promotes diversity, they say. Since the 80s the minority population at UIUC has risen to 26.1%. Isn't that wonderful news to all the Native Americans? Well, 1/5 of 1% of the student body, anyhow. The rest of that 26% is apparently some other ethnicity. But a minority is a minority, right? And if you add them all together, we are a wonderfully diverse place. So diverse that an investigation done by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights concluded in 1995  that we were not a racially hostile environment (whew!). Why they were doing the 20-month study in the first place I don't know. (If I had been on trial for murder and got acquitted I know I wouldn't put it on my resume as a source of pride that I hadn't been convicted--why is not having enough evidence to conclude that a hostile environment exists as the site puts it something to be proud of?)

Some of this reads like the "airtight" logic of an incoming Freshman. With lame arguments like that, no wonder most of the university faculty (in contrast to the students) don't like the Chief. (The site also answers the question ' is the Chief's dance an authentic tribal dance?' with a definitive yes and then gives its origin to a local boy scout doing a project on Native American dancing. OK, maybe he did his homework, but let's not get too carried away here!)

The worst part of the site comes when the group defines racism, and then suggests that the only way the Chief could be racist is because we elevate him above ourselves, in other words proclaiming him superior (not inferior). If this is racism, they seem to suggest, then we plead guilty!

Folks, this is the same rhetoric that hate groups all over the world use to defend themselves. Oh, we aren't racists. We love everybody. And if the people who we are honoring are angry at us, they can take a flying leap!

I wasn't planning to get that fired up when I started this column, but you have to remember, people died here. Not just in Germany in the 1940s, or in Darfur in the past year, but in Illinois--even if it was over a hundred years ago. And like the people of both of these other places, we are great at remembering when it happened somewhere else, and good at covering up our own killing. Societies always are.

I've spent a lot of time trying to explain to the people of the University why the outside world is not amenable to their position. Sometimes it feels futile. As understanding as I'd like to be, this isn't a pretty issue. Issues of justice never are. Issues involving cultural and racial divides aren't either. And then you have regional conflicts. There are about fifty levels of Us versus Them if you want to see it that way. The regional part of this involves an outside group, the NCAA, pressuring our University to do what it wants. Surprise! We don't like being told what to do by somebody else.

But I'd also like to explain to the Somebody Else why basically tolerant people can still be upset by this ruling. I've heard people talk about how the Chief is a symbol of all the things they strive for, and at a gut level, I know he represents stability, something that is always there (or was) for as long as they can remember and can always be counted on. Something that unites a group of people in a common joy. I know I'm not exactly qualified to defend this tradition, since I am basically an outsider here. I spent most of my life somewhere else and I don't go (and never did) to the University of Illinois. I've probably never had that sense of tradition grounding me like many of my fellow citizens have and I am at least partly envious. But then, I might know more about these things than you'd think.

I grew up in the Cleveland area. Our baseball team has a bit of a problem with this same issue. The Cleveland Indians use a grinning caricature of an "Indian" Chief. People use the same arguments to defend "Chief Wahoo" as they did on Chief Illiniwek. It honors Indians, they say, pointing out that  there was once an Indian on the team (a mere 80 years ago!) in whose honor the team was supposedly named--and get very upset when people suggest that maybe their baseball team ought to change its name (darned PC police!). A newspaper columnist in Cleveland writes an anti-Chief Wahoo column once in a while when he's about to go on vacation (and thus get out of town for a while) and only then. I am younger and stupider than he is so I'm writing this even though I plan to stay here a while.

I didn't get what all the fuss was about at first. A few guys marching around in Public Square, bringing up something that happened a hundred years ago. Trying to change the sacrosanct name of our team (It's been changed a couple of times before, by the way, but not since the 1920s). After a while, though, I got to wondering: why are people so immovable over the name of a sports team? Aren't race relations more important? Aren't people more important? And I wondered just what was motivating people to want to keep that grinning Chief.  Is it really a sense of loyalty and unity, or is it much uglier? Does it really come down to Us versus Them?  I've noticed that people really bristle when anybody suggests there is racism here, but I have also noticed that actual racists are generally not the first people to say jovially, "you may have a point."  In fact, the more infuriated people get, the more I wonder about their motivations. Some people think that they can bully their way through life, and I have a newsflash for them. They aren't fooling us.

But it is my time in Maryland that I think of most. Maryland was on the wrong side of the nastiest conflict in American history. They owned slaves, and they weren't the slightest bit happy when some jerk named Lincoln told them they were going to have to get rid of them. Or that they couldn't decide that issue for themselves (guess what that meant). Imagine, some guy from another state trying to force them to do something they didn't want to do. Basically, he was trampling on State's Rights to decide their own futures (not that the slaves got to decide anything, but remember, they don't count here. In fact, they are all very happy being slaves, say the whites who speak for them. You might say they should feel honored). The people living in those states had a point, you know.  Nobody likes not getting to make their own choices.

And the way Lincoln freed those slaves was cowardly. He only did it in Southern states, which meant not a one of them actually won his or her freedom in January of 1863. If he'd done it in the 21st century he probably would have leaked it to the press on a Friday right before a holiday weekend.  Some historians think he wasn't that interested in freeing them at all. He said as much: that his first priority was to preserve the union, regardless of the status of slavery.

Lincoln didn't appreciate the Southern  way of life. He didn't love their traditions. He was from some place in Illinois where they didn't grow tobacco and cotton. No wonder Maryland's state song begins "The tyrant's boot is on thy sacred shore"--and the tyrant is Lincoln! (A few years ago, somebody in the State legislature made some noise to change the song, thinking that it was perhaps a bad idea to have a state song which referred to a former president of the United States as a tyrant, but the resolution didn't pass. We wouldn't want to mess with tradition, surely!)

There is one place where this analogy breaks down. With regard to the Chief, it wasn't the NCAA that started this fight. It was Native American groups from within Illinois that asked the NCAA to step in. I didn't find that out until recently, because it was to the advantage of Pro-Chief persons to make this a conflict between us and some self-righteous outsiders.

I've hit below the belt, haven't I? To dare suggest Lincoln was anything less than heroic can be heresy around here. And worse, to suggest that there might have been legitimate differences over an issue that we all learned in school was cut and dried, and settled 'correctly' a long time ago (racism against blacks is completely over now, right?) But then, living in different parts of the country gains you an appreciation for how people see things so differently. Illinois's favorite son was once Maryland's Public enemy number one. And even though history says they were wrong, they still had some good arguments in their favor. Arguments that could not stand in the face of one overwhelming injustice. Which is one of history's millions of tragedies. Because a lot of good things had to die--a lot of good people had to die, because of it.

Which is why I can understand why it is hard to let go of a tradition. I think the Chief deserves to be buried. The fact that he has caused so much animosity around here suggests that we need to let him go so that people can heal--many of whom do not share our culture or our skin color. The fact that so many extremely angry people have threatened to stop giving the University money over this issue (who cares if the Science or Medical departments can't do research anymore! The Chief was more important than possibly curing disease anyway!) tells me this thing is distracting us from doing much real good in the world, and as long as the Chief is around this will keep happening. As long as there are people who remember this day, there will be bitter, angry people. And this, I'm afraid, is another part of the Chief's legacy. You don't heal over issues like this in a day; it takes a generation. (Think of how many people died cursing Lincoln well after the war was over. In fact, confederate flags are still a hot item in some places).

But people say that the Chief was a symbol of much that was good. I think some of them mean that sincerely. And I hope they can listen to whatever comfort I can give them, for the real struggle is not to make anyone an object of ridicule but to make us all better people. The Chief didn't do that in the end. But the university and its people are much more than the ugliness that this controversy exposed. They have the hopes and dreams and aspirations that people of good will can relate to in any culture. They are looking at the future as well as the past.  Many of them could not understand how their well-meaning overtures could have been misinterpreted. They are victims of how enormously difficult it is to communicate well in complex issues like this. We all are.

If Illiniwek is really  a symbol, then he is not dead. The things he stood for--all the good, glorious things--are still here. They are in the people of this town and its university. They lie much deeper in the soil than one figure. Removing that symbol doesn't kill the reality behind it. It does make the going harder, because the intangible things he represented to so many people are shown for what they must be: intangible. And inside of every one of us. And they are not forced on anyone. You have to choose to honor, and respect, and mature, and listen, and grow. And grow together. Without building a wall. That is extremely difficult. History proves it.

I expect the Chief controversy to simmer around here for a really long time. I'm sure it will be around when we move away in eight or ten years. Maybe the next generation will let Illiniwek go because they didn't experience him, and what they thought he stood for. Perhaps they will find another way to express their loyalty to the school and their aspirations as human beings. Something they won't have to defend from charges of racism. A lot of ink has been spilled over this issue and a lot of it has been of the "how come those idiots don't get it?!?" variety.   When an issue is as hard fought as this one has been, people stop bothering to try to see the other side after a while. And some have never bothered to try in the first place. How much of the ugly side of human history comes down to that simple fact, I wonder? There is something to the wisdom of "walking a mile in another man's shoes."

I've heard that's an old Native American saying.