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University of Illinois continues cultural insensitivity

by Shelby Toth - News editor
Tue, Apr 17th 2018 09:00 pm

There’s a difference between respecting a culture's history and parading a white kid dressed as a caricature of a Native American chief around sports games. Students, faculty and alumni at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign still seem to be confused on that issue.

Let’s begin with a bit of history.

For years, the university’s mascot was officially Chief Illiniwek, and the sports team was referred to as the ‘Fighting Illini.’ According to The Chicago Tribune, the mascot was banned by the school in 2007, a decision that came two years after the NCAA ruled that teams sporting offensive Native American imagery would be banned from hosting postseason play. 

But of course, that wasn’t the end of the issue. People are still arguing today whether to officially bring the mascot back or to take more steps to rid the mascot from the campus. 

The issue flared up again recently, as reported by The Chicago Tribune. In February, the two opposing sides clashed during Illinois’ final home basketball game. A group of fans who wanted to keep the legacy of the Chief alive designated the game “Paint the Hall Chief.” The fans wanted to inspire those attending to wear any chief gear they had, and many did.

On the opposing side, nearly 100 protesters stood outside the stadium in hopes of getting the university to claim a new mascot and ban fans from dressing up as the Chief during games. They chanted “Down with the Chief” while holding up signs. 

The protestors' grievences are legitimate, too. There’s a whole group dedicated to bringing the Chief back, called the Honor the Chief Society. And fans still have a tendency to dress up as the old chief mascot and come out during the halftime of games to amuse the audience. 

According to a different article by The Chicago Tribune, during a January 22 game in 2018, rumors were going around about a student planning on dressing as the Chief for the game. Jay Rosenstein, a professor of media and cinema studies at Illinois and award winning documentary filmmaker, was one man who heard the rumor and decided to take action. 

Rosenstein found graduate student Ivan Dozier in an arena bathroom, and took a short video of him in the costume. This lead to Rosenstein’s arrest, although he was released the next day, according to The New York Times. Rosenstein claims he was filming for a documentary he was planning on making about the Chief.

Quite obviously, people are getting very riled up about the issue, and for a good cause, too. Native Americans aren’t a Halloween costume. They aren’t like a Golden Eagle, or a Knight or any other mascot schools use. Native Americans are actual people who have suffered from an obscene amount of oppression throughout American history.

Other sports teams are finally starting to get this message. According to The Chicago Tribune, many teams have been switching out their old, offensive mascots and names for updated ones. In the ’90s, the Marquette Warriors changed to the Golden Eagles. The St. John’s University Redmen became the Red Storm. Ohio’s Miami University switched from the Redskins to the Redhawks. The positive trend has even made its way into the MLB, with the announcement that the Cleveland Indians will completely get rid of the Chief Wahoo logo by 2019.

Even though most people are starting to get the hint, Illinois’ process has been slow. This is probably due to the fact they haven’t named a new mascot.

That’s right, the university has been futzing around with the problem for over a decade, and in that time, has yet to pick a new mascot.

I’m no expert, and while I know it’s unlikely that a new mascot would fix things overnight, it would be a great first step to finding a permanent solution. People, like those in the Honor the Chief Society, can claim Chief Illiniwek represents a great history and is respecting the culture all they want, but at the end of the day, it isn’t. It’s 2018, kids, we need to realize that people aren’t mascots.

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