The University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek mascot performed his last traditional dance Wednesday, and it's about time.
The mascot's supporters have argued that the chief and his dance are a valuable tradition, inspiring students for more than 80 years.
But labeling an activity a tradition does not make it right. Many traditions in our culture, often conducted in the spirit of good, clean fun by well-intentioned citizens, have been retired because they are no longer appropriate.
The chief's dance and goofy face paint were a burlesque rendition of American Indian dancing. How could such a performance be interpreted as a gesture of honor for Indians by anyone other than an intoxicated frat boy?
If a mascot had a tradition of performing in black face at athletic games, we would not be witnessing such a public debate. The practice would have been ended years ago because people would have understood the inappropriateness of such an act.
With our lack of economic and political power, however, Indians are among the last ethnic groups that are still fair game for public disrespect.
In fact, suggestions that such mockery might be less than civil have been dismissed as political correctness gone awry. The chief may be on the way out, but the attitude that kept him there remains.
Indians, social activists and other supporters worked for years trying to educate the university community about the tradition of ignorance that Chief Illiniwek was upholding. In the end, the threat of losing NCAA-related funds was the real motivation for throwing out the chief.
In its response to the University of Illinois' appeal to keep the chief, the National College Athletic Association stated, "As a member of the NCAA, Illinois is expected to adhere to the NCAA's principle of nondiscrimination and promote an atmosphere of respect."
Even today, thousands of University of Illinois students don't get it. They have circulated petitions, organized candlelight vigils and letter-writing campaigns to the university leadership and state legislators and encouraged students to wear black at a basketball game.
A moral victory motivated by economics is bittersweet but it is a victory nonetheless. Goodbye, Chief Illiniwek. Let's hope we've seen the last of you.
- Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Ojibwe, is past president of the Native American Journalists Association. The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues based in Madison, Wis.