Archive for Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Time to retire Indian mascots

August 24, 2005

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The NCAA recently alerted my alma mater, the University of Illinois, home to the mascot "Chief Illiniwek" and the "Fighting Illini," that "hostile and abusive" depictions of American Indians are no longer welcome at the association's championship sports tournaments.

It's about time.

Illinois and the 17 other colleges and universities that use American Indian names, mascots and logos to represent their sports teams must now decide how best to respond to their beleaguered institutional symbols.

During my years as a student in Champaign-Urbana, I readily encountered the full arsenal of rationales offered by non-Indian students and administrators for "keeping the Chief."

And yet, while clinging to deeply felt institutional traditions, not a single individual ever addressed the most obvious argument against these symbols: Indian sports mascots and logos are damaging racial stereotypes. This can be shown by considering three simple points.

First, the "Indians" of American sports culture are portrayed inaccurately. The dress, dance and designation attributed to them typically owe more to Euro-American imagination than historical reality. For example, during his halftime performance, Chief Illiniwek wears regalia from the Lakota tribes of the Great Plains, not the Illini of the Mississippi Basin. Furthermore, his frenetic gymnastics routine bears no resemblance to any cultural practice indigenous to this hemisphere.

Second, the specific kinds of inaccuracies in these portrayals of America's sports Indians have a long history in this country. In fact, they follow enduring modes of representing Indians as a primitive racial group. These inaccuracies come straight from the books, movies, postcards and exhibits that have been stereotyping Indians for more than two centuries. Thus, it's no accident that Chief Illiniwek is portrayed as uncivilized (in bare feet, feathers and buckskin), aggressive (in war paint while leading the "Fighting Illini") and physically - as opposed to intellectually or spiritually - robust (performing a demanding halftime routine that ends in stoic reticence, with folded arms extended).

Third, as stereotypes of a "primitive" race, the "Indians" of American sports culture make it harder, not easier, for the 2 million contemporary citizens of tribal nations to advocate for our interests, inspire our young people and cultivate well-being in our communities. These images damage our pursuit of self-determination.

Given the unprecedented moral guidance provided by the NCAA, now is the opportunity to retire these vestiges of racial burlesque once and for all.

Joseph P. Gone is a member of the GrosVentre tribe of Montana and a professor of psychology and American Indian studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project (www.progressive.org), affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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