Chief Illiniwek, 1926-2007

I’ve been looking for a good reason to name-drop local filmmaker Jay Rosenstein on C-U Blogfidential for the first time and, thanks to a long-overdue decision by his employer, I can finally give the documentarian his due.

According to an official announcement issued last Friday, February 16, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will retire much-debated Chief Illiniwek after tonight’s men’s basketball game versus Michigan. Rosenstein can be credited (or blamed, depending on your viewpoint) with elevating the issue of questionable mascots at academic institutions in the national consciousness when his Illiniwek documentary, IN WHOSE HONOR?, aired on PBS in July 1997. Opponents claim Illiniwek is a racist appropriation of Native American-style dress and dance used for sheer spectacle at UIUC sporting events; proponents say the Chief is an honorable symbol of both the university and Native American customs, and that his “tradition” should live on. This description oversimplifies the problem, obviously, but a hearty Web search can dredge up further details.

Although I’ve never lost sleep over this controversy, primarily because UIUC is not my alma mater, I have believed for a while that Illiniwek should go. This is partially due to Rosenstein’s level-headed handling of the sensitive subject in his film. Ten years later, UIUC has finally gotten with the program and done the right thing, even though their motivation seems to lean towards economic concerns rather than honest-to-goodness empathy and respect for Native Americans.

Sadly, thousands of university employees, alumni, students, and sports fans wearing their Orange-and-Blue blinders will consciously keep alive the ghost of Illiniwek (who is actually a fictional character “traditionally” played by Caucasian males, for those living outside of MICRO-FILM Country) by hooting, hollering, spreading “war paint” on their faces, and brandishing Chief clothing wherever they may go. Since this issue is probably far from over despite the decision handed down by the UIUC Board of Trustees, I have but one question:

Are you up for a sequel, Jay?

~ Jason Pankoke

Click to Read: Chief Illiniwek timeline in The News-Gazette

Click to Read: History of anti-Chief movement in The News-Gazette

Click to Read: The official site of IN WHOSE HONOR?

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