This essay was published in the Opinions section of The News-Gazette on Friday, January 17, 2003. I wrote it on New Years Eve of 2002 while watching my aunt and uncle’s dog. I don’t think I write like this any more and sort of cringe at the way I hold readers’ hands throughout as I explain my position, in an effort, I think, to make sure they fully understand my viewpoint. I also convey my opinion as if no one before me had ever considered the idea that Chief Illiniwek glorified Native Americans and should be revered because of that, not ousted.
What I do like about the piece is how I recognize the validity of the contrary viewpoint and present my own in a measured tone. Following its publication, I may have received more compliments on this essay than any essay or article I’ve written since.
I remember as a young kid attending an event at Robeson’s Department Store where Chief Illiniwek was present, fully decked out in his American Indian garb, respectfully silent and proud. This was sometime in the early to mid-’80s, and we were encouraged to get a snapshot picture with the Chief. I don’t remember the specifics of the event, but it was designed to promote pride in the University of Illinois, while simultaneously helping Robeson’s capitalize on sales of popular Illini apparel.
Looking back, it was a reverential moment that won’t ever be repeated: the stateliness of the Chief, a proud Illinois tradition, within the walls of a storied, locally owned department store that provided an array of high-quality merchandise. Beyond that, Robeson’s was known for its excellent customer service, service with a sense of charm and genuine friendliness, characteristics that sometimes seem nonexistent in today’s plastic malls and unending chain stores.
Robeson’s Department Store is long gone, and the Chief could someday be history as well. But I view each institution—Robeson’s and Chief Illiniwek—with a great amount of respect for the pride they instill within the surrounding region and beyond.
Many years after that event at Robeson’s, as a 1995 University of Illinois graduate, I still remain torn in the hotly debated Chief Illiniwek issue—should he stay or should he go? I was at first indifferent to either argument (surprising for a U of I grad, I know), but later warmed to the anti-Chief demonstrators who saw the Chief’s Illini-frenzied facade as tacky, offensive, and improper, a misrepresentation of an entire revered culture.
My Ralph Nader-like approach simply saw the issue through the eyes of those who were offended: if it trespasses on the ideals of a certain group of people, no matter how small or large that group of people may be, then the mascot should go.
Now, however, I’m not so sure. Pro- and anti-Chief advocates have made their viewpoints clear over the years, but there is one argument for keeping Chief Illiniwek that I have never heard voiced.
It’s simple: If Chief Illiniwek is ousted as a mascot from the U of I, where will people get any sense of American Indian history, and any sense of its roots, tragedy, and pride within the region?
We are all taught at some point in our journey through school—some more thoroughly than others—the plight of American Indians, and how their rights were so severely trampled on by white settlers. Those are the basics, harsh, sad, and true. For many, however, that’s the extent of their American Indian knowledge. My question is, what is so wrong with glorifying the image of American Indians, which I propose Chief Illiniwek does.
If the Chief is ousted as a mascot, so is any sense of American Indian history many Illini fans possess. Is this a desired effect?
Forget for a moment what the Chief may mean to people within the U of I family of alumni, and instead consider what he might mean as a historical figure, a timeless remembrance of a forgotten past.
Sadly, it seems to me that American Indians are too often portrayed in unfavorable vantage points: racist jokes, bloody movies, and stereotyped lifestyles. For 10 minutes of every Illini football or basketball game, however, Illini fans get to see something positive from American Indian culture, and if that ritual is erased, I wonder where the average Illinois fan will get any feel for the civilization of Indians.
While I believe sports teams such as the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves do have racial overtones to their names, I do not think the same holds true with Chief Illiniwek. It took a long-ago memory and concern about people forgetting the roots of this state for me to recognize the Chief’s value.
The end of the article says, “Sal Nudo is an advertising copywriter at Hobbico in Champaign.”
Photo by Sal Nudo. I love the simplicity and symmetry of the Chief Illiniwek logo on that little notebook, which sits on top of an Illini football program from 1983.