Smile Politely

The sinner’s guide to the Chief debate

Like zombies rising from the grave, pro and anti Chief Illiniwek forces are re-gathering for this Friday’s next Next Dance.  The faithful are set to lurch en masse towards Assembly Hall, like angry Frankensteins in search of a purpose, to watch Chief Illiniwek dance again. The anti-Chief forces will be there to counter-protest, like the dead in The Sixth Sense, speaking to people who cannot hear them.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of this debate. And yet, against all available evidence, I still believe that reason should prevail in these kinds of arguments.  Or perhaps more accurately, that reason will eventually prevail at one of these debates in some theoretical, idealized universe. With unbridled optimism and reckless abandon, I am going to suggest a neutral set of principles to apply to this situation, which I hope will convince everyone to sit down, be quiet and move on.


At its core, the Chief debate is really about which side can claim the highest moral ground. Everyone wants to honor Native Americans. It’s just that one side believes that honor is best accomplished by dressing up white people as Indians to dance during halftime at sporting events, and the other side believes that honor is best accomplished by not doing that. As the old saying goes, you can’t swing a sharpened tomahawk in this town without it landing in the chest of someone who is currently honoring a Native American, or thinking about doing so real soon, when the football game comes on.

If this is indeed a moral argument we are having, then it should be obvious which principles we should apply to resolve the debate: The Ten Commandments.

Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even godless communists and university professors agree with most of them. All we have to do to finally put this to rest is figure out who is sinning the most, as determined by the Ten Commandments applied to the moral arguments of each side. After all, as Mark Knoplfer once sang about two men claiming to be Jesus: One of them must be wrong.  As must one side in this debate.

Since ten can produce a tie number, I am also going to use the Golden Rule as an 11th commandment/tie-breaker. I hope this doesn’t undercut the arguments for any non-Christians out there. It just seems that “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you” is too righteous a tool to leave lying on the floor when there is so much moral work to be done.

So without further ado, let’s simply count how many sins each side racks up. One point per sin, and may the best moral position win:

  1. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other Gods before me. While we can’t make sweeping generalizations about which side has a stronger faith in God, I’m pretty confident no one’s faith in God depends in any way on the Chief, or vice-versa. The first skirmish ends in a draw: No sins for either side.
  2. Do not make idols. Clearly Anti-Chiefers are sin-free on this one, but I’m not so sure about Pro-Chiefers. The true believers are on some thin ice here when they claim the Chief symbolizes all that is good, and that we should pay homage to and respect the Chief. Given a lot of the rhetoric one hears, and watching the faithful remove their hats and bow during the ceremony, the difference between worshipping a dancing man dressed in feathers and a Golden Calf on wheels is merely one of degree. I have to give Pro-Chiefers at least ½ a sin on this one, for at least idolizing the Chief, if not committing outright idolatry.
  3. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Both sides are probably liberal in their use of the Lord’s name when referring to the other side of the debate. However, there is nothing in either side’s moral arguments that requires vain name taking, so we’ll let both sides off the hook on this one.
  4. Remember the Sabbath. The Anti-Chiefers seem to again be in the clear on this one. They may be Sabbath-breakers, but not because they are anti-Chief. However, regardless of whether Saturday or Sunday is your holy day, The Chief’s performances have historically taken place on the Sabbath, and supporting the Chief performing on the Sabbath is a clear violation since it requires people to work on that day. Opponents: 0 sins. Supporters: 1 Sin, unless you believe the Chief’s performance are OK on the Sabbath because they are a religious ceremony, in which case, you score a sin for Commandment 1. Either way, it is one full sin for Pro-Chiefers.
  5. Honor your mother and father. Both sides likely do a fine job here, since being an Anti or Pro Chiefer often depends on how you were raised. 0 sins for both sides.
  6. Do not murder. Thankfully, neither side has collected a sin for this commandment, although it would be good to end the debate soon, just to be safe. 0 sins for both sides.
  7. Do not commit adultery. Also thankfully, I’ve never seen any fornication during a Chief dance or protest.  Given the average hotness factor for typical people on both sides of the debate, again, let’s end this soon before something gross happens. 0 sins around.
  8. Do not steal. One could argue that Anti-Chiefers are trying to steal the University of Illinois tradition of the Chief. However, stealing is about wanting to have something of someone else’s, and not about wanting someone to stop doing something. I’d have to give Anti-Chiefers a clean bill on this, given that definition.
    However, Pro-Chiefers have to admit that the Chief tradition was clearly lifted from Native American culture, and that Native Americans in general want it back. I guess you could argue that it isn’t stealing if you parade it around and are unashamed of your actions. But that is just silly. 1 full sin for Pro-Chiefers.
  9. Do not bear false witness. The rhetoric level on both sides is fairly deafening on this one. But does anyone tell outright lies? For brevity, let’s consider the battle cries of both sides.

    Anti-Chief: “Racial Stereotypes Dehumanize.” This is a fairly uncontroversial statement. The Chief is obviously a racial stereotype – supporters say as much when they say he represents all that is good about Native Americans. And even positive stereotypes can be dehumanizing. 0 sins.

    Pro-Chief: “The Chief is an Honorable Tradition.” Generally, honor requires that those who are being honored actually feel honor, instead of embarrassment or anger. Native Americans clearly don’t like white people dressing up like their forefathers so that other white people can get worked up at sporting events. Sure, it’s hard to understand why that might be the case, but that’s the way it is. It may want to be honorable, just as I would like to be handsome and charming, but that doesn’t make it so. However, because of intent, we’ll only give ½ a sin to Pro-Chiefers, for not really wanting to bear false witness, but doing so anyway.

  10. Do not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, ox, donkey, or anything else. Presumably, this commandment only applies to things, not necessarily actions. In this case, Anti-Chiefers covet an end to the tradition, and Pro-Chiefers covet its continuation. Call it 0 or 1 for each side, as they are pretty much the same. Let’s say 0 for both sides, since it looks like Pro-Chiefers could use a break from sinning at this point.
  11. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. It doesn’t look like we’ll need this as a tie breaker after all, but let’s continue anyway, for the sake of completeness.

    Anti-Chiefers are trying to see the world from the eyes of Native Americans, who are pretty upset about the whole situation. They seem to be treating Native Americans in the way they want to be treated. So, clearly the Anti-Chiefers are not just passively living up to this rule, but actively trying to live it out.

    Pro-Chiefers, however, seem like they just can’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar of sin. Supporting an action that is designed for someone’s benefit, but instead makes him or her angry, seems to me the opposite of what this rule is going after. Or, we could look at it in the opposite direction: Suppose Native Americans took all our houses by force, forced us to live in concentration camps, and forbid us to practice our religion. I guess in this hypothetical situation Pro-Chiefers would really enjoy it if a Native American dressed up like Jesus for ritualistic hunting trips and did a dance to honor us, and then ignored us when we said that Jesus is sacred to us, and should not be trivialized in this way. However, I don’t think that any reasonable person would actually believe this, so it ends up counting as yet another sin for supporters.

Well, there we have it. The surprising result seems to be: 4 sins for Pro-Chiefers, 0 sins for Anti-Chiefers. I’m not really sure which sport sinning most compares with, so I’m not sure how to interpret the score. If this were soccer or hockey, it would be a blowout. If it were baseball, just a solid win. If it were football, it would have been a really boring game.

Unfortunately, this is not good news at all for those who want both the 10 commandments AND Chief Illiniwek in schools. It looks like we need pretty much one or the other, or we’ll confuse the children. I think staying with the 10 commandments is a good choice here. Heck, we might want to roll out a big marble statue of it at football games, and cheer for it now that the Chief is gone, to get back into God’s good graces. In fact, I believe there’s still an old one available near an Alabama courthouse, where marble statues are known to cause morality.

Lastly, it is surprising that the final score was so lopsided, given how sure both sides are of their righteousness. Perhaps another lesson for us all is that feeling strongly about something does not necessarily translate into it being right. Unless you are an Anti-Chiefer, apparently.

Now that this controversy has been settled, is anyone up for arguing about health care reform?

Related Articles