Smile Politely

Dancing Privileges


These days, fervent Chief Illiniwek supporters are a bit like PUMAs, those fervent Hillary Clinton supporters who even now still hope that she has a shot at winning the election. Unlike PUMAs, however, Chief supporters can still gather their resentment into a single location, which thousands of them did this Saturday at Assembly Hall, paying $5 a pop to see “The Next Dance.”

Most attendees arrived an hour early to escape the cold and the drubbing being administered to the Illini gridders by Ohio State across the street at Memorial Stadium. However, soon enough, warmth and impatience returned. By the time Students for Chief Illiniwek president Roberto Martell walked out to greet the assembled faithful, the crowd was ready for some good ol’ red meat NCAA-bashing and Native American-honoring.

Martell was in short supply of actual Native Americans, however. As is usual for Chief Illiniwek speeches, he did not talk about dressing up a white guy in Indian costumes, but instead about the virtues that he believes the Chief represents — strength, honesty, honor, loyalty, dignity and truthfulness. “They can retire the Chief, but not the values on which he stands. We are here to celebrate those values,” Martell said.

The good news is that protesters have yet to demand retirement of the values of strength, honesty, honor, loyalty, dignity or truthfulness. (Well, maybe either honesty or truthfulness could go, since they are redundant). No, it’s the mascot dance that gets people all riled up. In fact, Chief protesters believe in these exact same values, which is one of the reasons they are protesting.

I was curious to see how Native Americans were going to be honored at this event, since we’ve been told honor is the purpose of Chief Illiniwek. At least, we’ve been told that ever since people started protesting it, and after they removed Chief Illiniwek toilet paper from stores.

Would there be a presentation from an American Indian Studies Department professor highlighting the lives of contemporary American Indians? Would a member of the Peoria tribe be there to advocate for concrete things that could be done to honor them? Would there be a documentary about the Illini Tribe or the state of Illinois, so as to better understand how white people came to occupy this land within the last 200 years?

Unfortunately, no. Honoring Native Americans took the form of a video about Chief Illiniwek, showing how well-meaning white people have portrayed him over the last 82 years. Former Chief Illiniweks talked about how the Chief represents everything that is good and strong in man. They talked of their pride in not willing to let it go. In other words, it was all about us white people.

The crowd, which really just wanted to see the Chief dance, was starting to get restless by the time Roger Huddleston of the Honor the Chief Society spoke, 30 minutes into the program. I never thought I’d agree with Roger on anything Chief related, but he hit the nail on the head:

“Is it the four and a half minutes at half time? Is that what we are really about? If it is, then the critics are right. It’s a mascot. But if it’s the character attributes that we subscribe to, and we reach out and do things that become things that are tradition, that is active.”

There was some light applause at this idea. This was followed by huge, tremendous, stomping applause a few minutes later when Roger said he would do everything in his power to get the Chief back dancing in the center of Assembly Hall’s floor during official events.

Let’s face it: The people don’t want to be educated about Native Americans. They want a mascot. “BRING ON THE CLOWN!” as one protester yelled from across the assembly just before the Chief came out.

And while we are at it, let’s face this too: The Chief is not about eternal manly values or vague characteristics that no sane person would disagree with. So far, the Chief has been about one thing: white privilege. It is about the power of white people to do what they want, when they want, and how they want. The Chief is about the privilege of deciding whether other people should be honored by your actions, without regard to their sensitivities or their culture.

If you like playing Where’s Waldo, expand the picture to the right and see if you can spot a Native American Waldo. Or, really, any non-white person. There’s good reason why I was unable to do so during the course of the event. Minorities understand how it feels to be told your opinion doesn’t count because you have no power.

White privilege is not racism, exactly. Chief supporters are not racist in the same way that segregationists were. They really do believe they are honoring Native Americans. It is more about power, and the unwillingness to voluntarily let go of it. But it still gets ugly when a higher power like the NCAA has to step in to take away that power, leaving behind bitterness and resentment.

And yet, it doesn’t have to play out this way. Chris Maier suggested in a Smile Politely column last May that the Chief could re-invent his role, away from dancing mascot and towards Native American advocate. He could don a suit instead of a fake headdress and work on issues that actually help Native Americans in their contemporary lives. He could raise money for scholarships or advocacy. Assuming he never dances or pretends to be a real Indian, I would bet the anti-Chief side would climb aboard.

There were an estimated 9,000 people in attendance on Saturday. That’s a good showing, but it is probably meaningless in the end. By a rough visual estimate, most of the people there were not students, but alumni. I talked to two guys while waiting in line, and they bemoaned the fact that they were the only two brothers in their fraternity to attend. At this point, only juniors and seniors have regularly seen the chief dance, and it is doubtful that enough freshman and sophomores were there on Saturday to continue any kind of student enthusiasm that will last.

So, in two years, a tiny fraction of students will have seen the chief perform in an official function, and I’m guessing organizations like Students for Chief Illiniwek will disappear altogether in another five years. Ten years from now, with no student emotion about the issue, reason will have won the day and students will wonder what all these cranky old white people are so upset about.

In the meantime, let the Alumni pay their five dollars to see the chief dance. Let them generate tens of thousands of dollars from nostalgia of white privilege. Then let’s call them on using that money for actual Native American advocacy, rather than mascot advocacy.

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